The following blog post was written by Mari Thiersch who is an alumnus of the Masters in Social Innovation at the Kroc School of Peace Studies. She is currently a high school math and science teacher in Tacoma, WA.
Social innovation is an emerging field that combines elements from entrepreneurship, design thinking, program evaluation, and more. Students are drawn to the Master’s in Social Innovation (MASI) program at the University of San Diego’s Kroc School of Peace Studies because they want to help solve the world’s most complex problems. It can be hard to envision tangible outcomes from the high aspirations of changemaking and social innovation alone. What does it really mean to be someone in the social innovation space? How does social innovation translate from theory and pedagogy to practice and scalability? What do the lives and careers look like for graduates of this program? These were the questions at the forefront of my mind when starting my studies at the Kroc School.
Everyone at the Kroc School is on a journey. My classmates come from diverse backgrounds and are interested in a broad range of issues including refugees, mental health, corporate social responsibility, and more. My passion has always been education, which led me to become a high school educator. As a teacher, every day, I was seeing the impacts of an outdated and complex system on students’ lives. From these experiences, I knew I wanted to become a better advocate for improving our educational systems and learn how to more effectively show students the impact they can have on the world. These skills are not part of traditional teacher development or administration programs. The Kroc School has allowed me to look at education from new lenses and gain new abilities to help me advance on my path to improve education for my students.
One way I’ve been able to progress is by learning from Kroc School alumni. MASI alumni are changemakers who have spread around the world and are accessible to current Kroc School students for networking and mentorship. They provide a wealth of insight and connections. Each MASI graduate I have interacted with during my time at the Kroc School has been kind and happy to talk about their experiences in the program and beyond. I have found that there is no single route that graduates have taken. Instead, they have created their own pathways in a variety of fields. The work they do includes starting new ventures to help organizations do well by doing good.
I recently interviewed a recent Kroc School graduate, Jessica Aparicio, who is currently the Director of External Affairs at SBX Youth & Family Services, a nonprofit organization based in Riverside, California, that works to mentor and support youth and their families to help break the cycle of poverty. That discussion gave me insight into how to find your perfect pathway and how the skills learned in the program can come alive.
Jessica made an inspiring career transition from finance – her undergraduate focus – to social advocacy. It started when, after finishing her MASI degree, Jessica continued to work in finance. Due to the pandemic, she lost her job, but reflecting on that experience, she said it was a blessing in disguise because it freed her up to take advantage of an opportunity. In late Spring 2020, America witnessed a tragic incidence of police brutality. Feeling called to act, Jessica worked to plan a protest in her hometown. A member in attendance happened to be one of the board members of SBX. Impressed with her work in coordination and mobilizing her community, they reached out about a full-time position with their organization. Now Jessica works for the advocacy branch of SBX. Her focus is on juvenile justice reform, and a large part of her job involves advocating for change through legislation.
Jessica’s story is an excellent example of how MASI students have worked to create their own pathways in the world. Graduates are developing their own job opportunities using tools from the degree. Her story also includes tangible examples of carrying on lessons learned from the MASI program: In her current role, she teaches teens about design thinking and has encouraged her organization to explore social entrepreneurship as an additional way to increase social impact. At the Kroc School, the classes are flexible enough to allow you to explore a new field or continue studying your passions. Professors have connections in various sectors, and you learn through the experiences your classmates bring to the table. My classes were highly immersive (even on Zoom) to provide me with practical experiences in the community. There are also opportunities to pitch your own innovations on a global scale through university competitions. The experience gives you the tools and viewpoints to spark change. Kroc School graduates are shining examples of changemaking in action.
As much as I would love to spend more time at the Kroc School, I feel energized and empowered to return to my teaching job with new skills and perspectives. Plus, the community is always there when I need it.