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MASI Degree Fosters Innovative Dreams of Social Entrepreneurs

Carmen Knight, far right, was in the inaugural class of Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies' Master of Arts in Social Innovation in 2018.Carmen Knight, far right, was in the inaugural class of Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies' Master of Arts in Social Innovation in 2018.

Carmen Knight and Bianca Alvarado have the same vision for creating change. Both young women see the importance and opportunity to make a difference by taking a difficult personal experience and using it to help others avoid the same challenge.

While both Knight and Alvarado have aspirations to create change, both can point to their decision to enroll in the inaugural cohort of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies' Master of Arts in Social Innovation (MASI) degree program in 2017 as an important chapter in their social entrepreneurial development.

This nine-month, 30-unit program, described by the school as a degree that "prepares students to look critically at the roots of social problems and to create systemic change in a wide variety of organizational settings," did so much more than just provide Alvarado, Knight and 19 others a master's degree, it gave them solid footing while innovating and having a chance to grow.

"My capstone," is what Knight answered when asked what during her time as a MASI student best represented her greatest growth. "All the work, the editing changes, the pivoting that took place, it all challenged me to grow in a way that, maybe I thought I'd already grown coming into my capstone, but I realized then that something had changed in me."

Alvarado, who comes from a low-income, first-generation immigrant family and became her family's first college graduate when she received degrees in Spanish and International Security and Conflict Resolution from San Diego State in 2012, knew she wanted to be a Changemaker. She initially got interested in environmental issues surrounding water and recycling, but through MASI's education, mentorship and being a "doer," the sky's the limit.

"It requires the full attention of the student," Alvarado said of the MASI program, especially the first semester when trying to figure what everything's about. "It was really intense, but you're learning a lot. The second semester, which I really liked, was more about the doing part. Karen (Henken, professor of practice, social innovation and entrepreneurship) was always supportive, but while there are people who can help you, there's a lot of personal growth required. You need to have a clear vision of what you want to create and then take it to your mentors and instructors."

Knight's BE Sisterly Bond

For Knight, being the oldest sibling in her family meant she knew she had a responsibility to be a big sister and mentor to younger sister, Cecelia. She cherished the role, and it got her thinking innovatively. Because she was the oldest sibling, she herself didn't have that same big sister to lean on, to guide her and have someone to confide in when life got too crazy.

The solution? The October 2016 creation of a socially innovative Be Sisterly, Inc. Knight, who attended Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black university in Charlotte, N.C., had been heavily invested in sorority life. She was vice president of the Gamma Delta Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha and served as president of the JCSU chapter of the National Panhellenic Council.

But soon after returning home, her sorority and family life came together. Her younger sister's constant questions got her thinking about other women who might not have a big sister for support. She also wanted to support young women of color.

After some brainstorming, Knight started a club at a local high school that focused on sisterhood, leadership and service. She researched it, became a volunteer, and soon, the first BE Sisterly club was a reality.

"The purpose of BE Sisterly is to cultivate an unbreakable bond between like-minded girls who seek friendship, empowerment and a unique outlet of strong women," Knight said.

Tinkering on the BE Sisterly model continues today. Knight's idea made it to the Global Social Innovation's list of USD semifinalists last spring, but did not advance. However, Knight, who after her MASI graduation is now doing a Northern California stint with Teach for America to impact even more youth, is committed to BE Sisterly's future. Currently, she said, locating start-up spaces is the focus. She seeks to build it up and help young women of color everywhere.

Alvarado's Dual Impact Dream

"Many times, I felt like I was walking with blinders on because there was no one to guide me or my education. Individuals have appeared on my search path and it has been through them that I have participated in recognized programs, scholarships and opportunities locally and internationally. It is my dream to take blinders away from other students and encourage them to become leaders in their communities, region or country."

That's an excerpt from a scholarship statement Alvarado submitted when she sought a USD scholarship to help her afford attending the MASI program. What it also encapsulated was the drive of this "doer.”

Living on the U.S.-Mexico border growing up, what she calls "one of the greatest challenges that I've experienced," is now a valuable experience that can help others. "Growing up along the border was challenging, but today the border is part of my profession and passion. Turning challenges into opportunities is a skill I want to teach to youth in Chula Vista through Baja Urban's Hispanic Youth Leadership program."

Alvarado, since 2016, has been working, learning and striving toward her dream goal. It combines Baja Urban, a business venture, with an empowering Hispanic Youth Leadership program.

"My dream goal is to create both a business and a social program into one,” Alvarado said. “The business will sell handmade products from South America and five to ten percent of the sales from each purchased product will be donated to our Hispanic Youth Leadership Program."

The program's vision is to then collaborate with local stakeholders to create conferences that inspire and empower Hispanic youth to design their dream career. Alvarado is currently working on a Nov. 3 Hispanic Youth Career Expo in Chula Vista that will be a hands-on experience with elements of science, engineering, entrepreneurship and more.

Alvarado's Baja Urban and a second venture, Empathy for Impact, which sought to support youth development in violence-riddled El Salvador, were two projects she applied her time to in USD's Global Social Innovation Challenge. Both projects were among the Global Social Innovation Challenge's USD semifinalists, but both did not advance.

Nonetheless, lessons learned and knowledge gained by Alvarado, both personally and through her MASI experience, will stay with her and help maintain her persistence to succeed.

"I learned so many things, I have so many mentors and I thank everyone who participated in helping me earn my master's degree," she said. "Having everyone's support was very important. I know that whenever I return to this program, I know I'll always have my Kroc School family I can count on."

— Ryan T. Blystone

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