Social entrepreneurship draws Carls to personal causes — starting with their own nonprofits

23 May 2016

When most college students get bored, they call friends, cue Netflix, or settle in for a nap.

Walter Paul? He dreams up nonprofits.

While sitting in his parents’ living room over winter break, Paul ’18 (Omaha, Nebraska) began envisioning an organization that could help low-income youth cultivate communication and debate skills.

He crafted a mission statement. Wrote strategic plans. Even called Omaha schools to gauge interest.

If those efforts came together in a day, Paul thought, what else did he need to know to get a functioning nonprofit together by summer?

Paul found out when he returned to Carleton and spent a week learning from Twin Cities nonprofits as part of the Career Center’s Scholars program. The annual “taste of industry”-style opportunity connects Carls with alumni experts through campus symposiums, site visits, and networking events.

This year’s spring break trip sent 11 students to area nonprofits like College Possible (founded by Jim McCorkell ’90), Genesys Works, Hmong American Farmers Association, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, and TakeAction Minnesota. Another 30 learned about careers in medicine at Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota.

“It was a wonderful coincidence to end up on the Scholars program. I was working on the organization over winter break and the Career Center happened to be focusing on nonprofits,” Paul says.

“It was really great timing. I learned so many techniques that are going to help me moving forward, everything from fundraising to management style to the culture and values you promote as part of your nonprofit.”

Passion With a Purpose

Sarah Wolfe, the Career Center’s program director for parent and alumni engagement, interviewed Carleton students to find out what nonprofit paths interested them the most. The clear winners: Education, food, and political engagement.

Knowing a strong alumni base already existed at Twin Cities nonprofits, Wolfe didn’t need to search far to find the right fit for a weeklong program. Megan Haddock ’01, an international research projects manager at Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, also led a one-day nonprofit management overview before the visits—which fueled better questions in the field, Wolfe says.

“There’s so much energy around social entrepreneurship and this generation’s ability to see a problem and tackle it. We’ve been adapting to that as a Career Center by finding existing support systems with alums, and hopefully it’s something that students like Walter will continue to take advantage of,” she says.

Elizabeth Lienesch ’08, organizing director at TakeAction Minnesota in St. Paul, credits Carleton with “opening her eyes” to a larger world of political and social activism.

TakeAction, in particular, aims to eliminate racial and economic disparities through grassroots change. While Lienesch didn’t leave college knowing exactly how her religion major would evolve into a career, she discovered that nonprofit work brought purpose to her passions.

“Carleton definitely activated me. I left college knowing that I wanted to do something meaningful in the world, but as I started in nonprofits, I quickly learned that what you do in this kind of work doesn’t always fit a clear job description,” Lienesch says.

“That can be challenging to adapt to. But at the end of the day, I get to have a job where even on the tough days . . . I can still step back, look at the big picture and say, ‘I’m doing real stuff that affects real people’s lives.'”

Speaking Up for Others

Paul’s drive stems from his transformation as an introvert from Uganda to the leader of a powerhouse debate team at a private Omaha high school. The 2014 National Speech and Debate Student of the Year, Paul attributes his college and professional readiness to the rigorous communication training he received from teachers.

But even as he was winning tournaments, Paul often thought about peers left behind because of access or funding issues. His desire to level the playing field has only grown while at Carleton, propelling Paul’s vision for the SPEAK (Self-Confidence, Pathos, Ethos, Action, Knowledge) Organization.

With the help of two Carleton students, Selam Nicola ’19 and Sebastian Tovar ’18, Paul plans to run SPEAK pilot programs at Northfield schools during his remaining two years on campus. He will also return to Omaha this summer to develop and implement curriculum at its three most under-resourced Catholic schools—for example, teaching lessons on hand gestures and speech writing coupled with intense debate practice.

From those efforts, he hopes to have a proven infrastructure in place for SPEAK’s larger goal: Training low-income students in formal communication the way young people are taught to practice piano or play sports.

“So much of this idea was inspired by conversations I’ve had with people at Carleton,” Paul says. “Many students here really believe in serving the world. I hope we can, in unison, fill the gaps that continue to impede prosperity for all members of our society.”