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At the Heart of the Matter: New master's program empowers students to pioneer change

Campus News | March 21, 2016

Shelly Laux makes a new friend while serving in Honduras.

(March 21, 2016)— Not long after graduating college, Ginny Gordon found herself working to combat human trafficking in northeast India. It was when she returned home that she became aware that human trafficking was more prevalent in the United States than she thought.

She wanted to do something about it. A search for degree programs led her to Carson-Newman University.

The University’s Social Entrepreneurship graduate program helps prepare service-minded innovators to tackle root causes of social ills locally and around the world.

“I wanted something Christian-based, not the typical nonprofit management most schools offered,” Gordon says. “I was looking for something that would help me integrate my Christian faith with community development and practical, people-oriented classes. I found very few degree programs like that.”

Gordon is now in her second year of Carson-Newman's Master of Arts in Social Entrepreneurship program, studying from Virginia where she also works.

Ashoka, an international not-for-profit network that provides start-up financing and other support to social justice organizations, describes social entrepreneurs as “individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems.”

I think part of what the degree has helped me with so far is to serve as a capstone for all my varied experiences and fits them into a bigger picture,” Gordon says. “ It has helped me sort through the experiences, and it helps you remember the sparkle and understand these are all awesome experiences and have a purpose.”

Launched in fall 2014, Carson-Newman’s MASE program was a natural step for the service-oriented liberal arts university. Carson-Newman is ranked no. 2 in the country in Washington Monthly’s “Community service participation and hours served" category, and was ranked no. 1 in service recently by the U.S. Department of Education.

“The Social Entrepreneurship program seeks to go beyond charity to get at root causes of problems such as poverty, youth incarceration and social injustice,” says Dr. Larry Osborne, who developed the program. “It seeks to empower people to solve their own problems and become masters of their own fate rather than dependent on the benevolence of others or government. That means changing social structures and systems that make problems self-perpetuating—for example, getting people access to jobs, education, mentoring or health care.”

Social entrepreneurship programs have taken off in recent years, with schools racing to meet the demand. Between 2003 and 2009, the top MBA schools in the country had an increase of 110 percent in courses that include social benefit content according to a study by The Bridgestone Group, with courses in nonprofit management doubling.

“I feel like I would have been crippled without this program,” says Shelly Laux, marketing director and advisory board chairman of Nueva Esperanza. “I have a greater respect for people in academia and a renewed sense of preparedness and empowerment to tackle social problems that weigh on my conscience.

She graduated from Carson-Newman’s MASE program in May 2015.

Laux’s first foray into social entrepreneurship was a week-long mission trip to Honduras with Nueva Esperanza, a ministry that seeks to affect permanent change in the spiritual, emotional, mental and physical lives of poor children living in Honduras.

“I became overwhelmed with materialism and the accumulation mentality,” Laux says. “When you go and you see people who are happy, who live in a house they made out of a pallet they found in the street and the level of need there—it was very conflicting for me.”

After nearly 10 years of leading volunteer trips, she started researching nonprofit management and business programs near her home in Morristown, Tennessee. She found Carson-Newman’s MASE program, and graduated within a year of enrolling.

“I was moved by the degree of poverty in Honduras and felt compelled to become more involved,” Laux says. “I really felt like it was important as a citizen, but also as a body of believers that we be concerned about social justice.”

Both Gordon and Laux say an online program was high on their list of requirements.

“As a working mother, I had to look for a flexible program. I also wanted to be close geographically, even though most of it is online,” Laux says. “It’s very important for me to be near enough to connect with people—professors, classmates, counselors, the registrar—that was comforting to me because this was a big step.”

Gordon says the online program allowed her to get to know classmates and faculty without uprooting her from her other obligations.

“At this time in my life with a full-time job, online education was something I really needed. I couldn’t go back to a college campus and just study,” Gordon says. “So far some of my favorite classes have been the Applied Social Justice courses because you get to interact with people and get to know others.”

“Most critical for me was that the professors facilitated interaction amongst classmates through the online discussion to a surprising depth,” Laux says. “I think one of the benefits of having class in that way is the level of mindfulness one is able to put into your reply and critique before posting. They weren’t snap responses.”

Laux continues her education in Carson-Newman’s MBA program. She says she believes her position is a direct result of her work in the MASE program.

“I used my practicum to research additional avenues for fundraising and exposure,” Laux says. “The board of directors would likely not have asked me to be marketing director without the education behind me.”

Entrepreneurship is increasingly the career path of choice for millennials, with a 2013 study by Deloitte finding 70 percent want to start their own organization. Social entrepreneurship is a likely path for many as the 2012 Millennial Impact Report found more than 70 percent volunteered for a nonprofit in 2012.

Falling into that generation, Gordon says she is interested in working with existing nonprofits or potentially starting her own after graduating in 2017. She says the business courses in the program have made her more balanced, prepared and confident for either scenario.

“So far it has helped me to solidify my goals. I’m still not 100 percent certain what I’ll do with my degree or how it will play out in my life, but it has helped teach me what’s available out there and the bigger picture,” Gordon says. “It’s even helped me understand what social entrepreneurship and community development really are, why they’re important and how people can benefit.”

Philanthropy.com in 2001 named social entrepreneurship the top buzzword of the 2000s as part of its top-ten list alongside such trends as microfinance and impact investing.

Even the White House has taken notice, with President Obama creating the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in 2009 to encourage grassroots solutions for problems across the nation. The Social Innovation Fund, a Corporation for National and Community Service project, acts as an incubator for sustainable solutions in community development organizations.

Osborne says Carson-Newman’s MASE program recognizes this upward trend by preparing students to work anywhere on the spectrum of social enterprise, including nonprofits, youth programs, faith-based organizations, social responsibility in corporations, for-profit businesses run by ethical principles and more.