Shabana Basij-Rasikh ’11, Co-founder and president of SOLA, kicked off the third annual Social Entrepreneurship symposium on Thursday, January 23 in Mead Chapel, as approximately 375 students, faculty and community members gathered to hear the recent alum speak about her work in Afghanistan.
SOLA is a nonprofit that helps exceptional young Afghan women access education worldwide and jobs back home. SOLA is also the first, and perhaps the only, girls’ boarding school in Afghanistan.
Basij-Rasikh spoke about how her time at Middlebury influenced her work at SOLA. Elements of SOLA’s design bear resemblance to Basij-Rasikh’s alma mater: SOLA has a language pledge, which requires students to speak English at all times, as well as an Honor Code, which binds the students to a commitment of respect for their peers. While both of these are hallmarks of a Middlebury education, Basij-Raskih explained that at SOLA, the two pledges are intended to help overcome the endemic ethnic tension within Afghanistan.
“For the future of Afghanistan, in order for our students to grow into leadership positions, they must accept and embrace everyone,” explained Basij-Rasikh.
But Basij-Rasikh’s time at Middlebury inspired not only SOLA’s curriculum, but also her inspiration for founding the school. She quoted something her first-year advisor at Middlebury shared with her: “The greatest sin in this world is to have knowledge, to know, and then not to share that with others.”
This idea inspired Basij-Rasikh to return to Afghanistan to share her education with young girls in her home country, and to instill that same sentiment in her students.
“The idea is that once [SOLA students] finish their education, they will bring knowledge back to Afghanistan, and they can turn skill into action,” she explained.
“The future of education – how our ideas and hopes and dreams can be incorporated in education – we must use our education to do something. Not just for ourselves, but to bring changes in our world.”
Friday was a full day, with Google Hangouts in the morning, workshop sessions in the afternoon, and our final keynote address on Friday evening.
Friday afternoon featured workshop sessions led by Jihad Hajjouji ’14, Cofounder and Director of Rabat Entrepreneurial Challenge; Elsa Palanza ’01 from the Clinton Global Initiative, Laura White, Manager of the Ashoka Changemaker Schools Network, Ashoka’s Empathy Initiative and Jeff Digel ’78, from Covenant Preparatory School. The workshops facilitated discussion among Middlebury College students and faculty as well as community members and local high school students. Attendees mingled between sessions while enjoying cups of Runa Tea
Friday night marked the final event of the third annual symposium with a keynote address by journalist David Bornstein.
Bornstein is the author of the New York Times’ “Fixes” column, which focuses on social innovations and solutions to major global problems. He also founded the Solutions Journalism Network and Dowser.org.
He began his address by noting that the mechanism behind much of the global change in today’s world was one of increased power: more people have more power, but it remains to be seen whether that power will be constructive or destructive. “So, the question is: how do we educate people so they have the ability to being powerful positive agents of change in this world?” Bornstein asked the audience.
He pointed out that humans have a natural fascination with problem-solving: “The Fixes column articles are among the most emailed columns in the New York Times So why are people reading wonky, nerdy, heavily reported solutions stories that run 2k words and are the most emailed? We think its because people love problem solving. Just like they love Harry Potter and detective stories and CSI and House – we’re gripped to problem solving.”
And yet, despite this, our education system is not focused on problem-solving. Ask any college senior to name as many serious global problems they can think of, and they could list hundreds — but ask for solutions, and they could only give a handful.
“Why is it that students at a great university don’t have more ideas in their head to solve a problem?” Bornstein asked the student-filled audience. “My gut is it’s because we’ve prioritized critical thinking. We think critical thinking is the thing we should be doing, but actually, critical thinking pushes us away from constructive thinking.”
He urged students and educators alike to prioritize constructive thinking over critical thinking. He proposed students shift away from analytical, absolute questions and towards a more holistic and constructive approach to global problems by asking ourselves, “How could you…” and “How might we…” Questions like these will produce more proposed solutions and reduce polarization, and will train students to build constructive solutions to global problems.
He concluded by urging the students in the audience to be brave enough to become changemakers. Bornstein concluded, “Capacity grows. If you take into your heart, then beginning is the most important step. As, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, ‘A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born.’”