The University of St. Thomas will be hosting the 2020 Ashoka U Exchange next spring, an annual conference for leaders from Ashoka U Changemaker Campuses to share their current social innovation practices and discuss how places of higher education can address issues facing the world today. Representatives from roughly 50 different schools designated as Changemaker Campuses will be in attendance, including schools from Asia, Europe and South America.  

Recent locations of the exchange include Boston in 2018, hosted by Babson College, and San Diego in 2019, hosted by the University of California, San Diego. St. Thomas sent five and seven students to these conferences, respectively. Manuela Hill-Muñoz, program manager of the create[space] and changemaking director for student engagement under the Center for the Common Good, hopes hosting the exchange will further increase involvement in changemaking among students, faculty and staff.

“Ashoka U is a conference that brings together social innovators from all over the world, specifically targeting higher education. And it comes together to learn best practices, to learn from each other and, specifically, to build collaborations around, ‘How do we make our world a better place?’” Hill-Muñoz said. 

St. Thomas is currently one of a few schools in the Midwest designated as Changemaker Campuses; the others include the University of Evansville in Evansville, Indiana; Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. To earn the designation, schools must meet a criteria set by Ashoka U, an organization “work[ing] with colleges and universities to foster a campuswide culture of social innovation.”  

Although St. Thomas is currently in its third year as a Changemaker Campus, Hill-Muñoz said the university was changemaking long before receiving the official title.

“When we look at Ashoka U and we look at our mission, they intertwine so perfectly,” she said. “When we look at all of the things that we do because we are Catholic, and all of the things we do to our students to push them out into our world … connecting them to working in the community, and having volunteer hours and really engaging and understanding social problems, we’re one of those institutions that does this really well.” 

Hosting the conference will allow St. Thomas to showcase its changemaking efforts and accomplishments. This will include six to seven site visits to community partner locations, illustrating how the university is giving back to the people in its surrounding areas. 

It’s really showcasing  our footprint in the community and highlighting what are the things that we’re doing and who are we connecting with,” Hill-Muñoz said.

A conference of this size will take careful planning and require roughly 120 volunteers to help ensure events run smoothly. The 2019 exchange in San Diego, which took place Feb. 21-23, had a total of 825 attendees. Hill-Muñoz said she is looking for volunteers who are willing to go above and beyond with their hospitality toward guests.

“I think that that’s a big part of our St. Thomas community,” she added. “We are family-like, we’re warm, and we’re really looking to show that, and show our convictions. What is the pursuit of truth? What does it mean for us to show gratitude to a community that’s coming into our own and allowing us to do bits of that showcasing?” 

Hill-Muñoz and the Center for the Common Good are working to help create a stronger identity centered around changemaking within the St. Thomas community. The first step: Making sure those who are currently driving social change on campus recognize that in taking these actions, they are already changemaking.

“We as an institution are primed to be able to host this conference,” Hill-Muñoz said. “I think that from our leadership, to what we do, to following our mission, Ashoka U is really in our DNA even if we don’t know it’s changemaking.” 

If you are interested in getting involved with the 2020 Ashoka U Exchange, email changemaking@stthomas.edu. 

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