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The Second Step to Change - My Experience as the Spark @ USD’s Social Innovation Fellow

If you wanted to be an astronaut when you were young and grew up to actually live that dream, you would likely find that it wasn’t quite what you fantasized. The intense mathematics and engineering study, pushing your body to its limits physically, and the mundane tasks you would have to complete on a regular basis that had nothing to do with space exploration; none of these were likely part of the original vision. At the same time, though, the career of being a real-life astronaut could be even more fulfilling than your limited childhood experience could have imagined or understood. The journey of understanding this phenomenon — from dream to harsh reality to reward — is one that I consider myself grateful to have begun as the inaugural Social Innovation Fellow at Spark @ USD, the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies institute for social innovation. 

The most common theme that has emerged amongst current students and recent graduates of the Kroc School is uncertainty — about their career path, the job market, and the world at large. For many, they come into the Kroc School wanting to impact real world change but not knowing exactly how or where to start, and sometimes, graduate school leaves one with more questions than answers. Initially, I joined the MA in Social Innovation program with a background in business, keen on exploring corporate social responsibility as a conduit for addressing social challenges. As I delved into the realms of nonprofits, foundations, and social enterprises, my perspective widened, but I realized that there was no one-size-fits-all solution to social issues. Each avenue has its unique merits and limitations. While the program enriched me with knowledge, it left me somewhat adrift regarding my path forward.

Image_20230705_111109_678Grayson Walker and Dr. Andrew Biros, Associate Director for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

It was in this period of limbo that I became connected with Dr. Andrew Biros through my friend, Kroc School royalty, and the individual I am proud to say will be the next Social Innovation Fellow, Michelle Kamau. Michelle introduced me to Dr. Biros, who hired us both to work part-time for the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge hosted at USD in June 2022. It was a great experience and work environment, and what I appreciated the most was the amount of autonomy and voice I had in my position even just as a new temporary worker. When I was offered the inaugural Social Innovation Fellowship, it was a no-brainer for me not just because I needed a job (like every other recent graduate) but because I already was comfortable in the work environment, familiar with the school and programs, and excited about working with the people I had been working with. 

This new, one year full-time position is tailored towards recent graduates of the Kroc School of Peace Studies’ graduate programs and affords a plethora of experience with a diverse array of tasks and responsibilities likely beyond the “pay grade” of graduates who, like myself, may be younger and with less traditional work experience. This aspect was one of those I appreciated most about my time as the Social Innovation Fellow. I was responsible for everything from invoice payments to student worker hiring and supervision to project management to university recruitment for our Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge, and everything in between, working under (yet alongside) Associate Director for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Dr. Andrew Biros. The breadth of projects I not only was involved in but also was fully responsible for has contributed significantly to my hard skills and experiential learning, and has allowed me to develop expertise in multiple areas beyond the scope of the average entry to intermediate level position I would have been in otherwise. I vetted, hired, and supervised two student work study workers (shoutout to Olivia and Azucena), and gained management experience that very few other entry-level positions would provide. Not only were experiences like this valuable for my development and professional learning, Dr. Biros was instrumental in encouraging me to use these experiences to build my resume and translate my daily tasks into tangible skills. 

2022_06_17_USD_GSI_2301_WEB_Grayson StagerGrayson played a key role in the development & organization of the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge

Contrary to how it may appear, this reflection is not intended to be Social Innovation Fellowship propaganda. My year was not all sunshine and rainbows, and there were many mundane tasks and administrative challenges that became part of my daily routine. Moreover, I believe that this position was particularly well suited (perhaps intentionally so) to my personality and skill set — I have substantial marketing and leadership experience, I enjoy being self-driven and am highly motivated to excel in positions that I have autonomy and freedom. This is to say that I have no doubt someone with a different predisposition and skills would have a different experience in this position, which is neither an indictment nor an endorsement of the position itself. My reality is not everyone else’s, and I acknowledge this openly.

With that being said, given the aforementioned context within which I came into the Social Innovation Fellow position and what I wanted in a professional environment immediately after graduating with my master’s in social innovation, the fellowship was exactly what I needed. I will go out on a limb and say that given what I know about my friends and peers in the Kroc School graduate programs, it would be equally fulfilling for many others as well — not to mention a valuable and timely stepping stone to help propel the fellow into a career in social innovation, no matter which avenue he or she decides to pursue first. On my part, my direction is still uncertain, but I am better educated, more experienced, and better prepared to pick one and see where it takes me because of the social innovation fellowship, and for that I am grateful. I intend to show, through my career, that this fellowship and career path is not just a stepping stone into the real world, but a launching pad to propel those who come after me to impact real social change. I will do this, Michelle will do this, and I’m confident that every future Social Innovation Fellow will be prepared to follow or surpass this precedent. I’m looking at you, reader.

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