USD: A Hub for Innovation


For the past few years, a large number of students, faculty and staff at the University of San Diego have been fervently working on a single goal: creating the ultimate culture of innovation. Today, that culture is visible everywhere. From courses in virtually every academic division including a Theology course titled Christian Changemakers, and three annual competitions that encourage students to earn money for business ideas, fund socially conscious ventures or pitch campus improvement projects, there’s no shortage of innovation present on campus.

For the faculty and administrators who have led the charge, it all began with a simple belief: students are the future and their ideas can change the world.

Grace Michel, assistant director of the Center for Peace and Commerce, has been on both sides of the equation. Although she currently serves as the primary organizer, visionary and point of contact for students in the Center for Peace and Commerce, she was a graduate student at the university before taking the position.

Michel serves as a mentor and friend for many of the students who enter the Social Innovation Challenge, a yearly campus event that provides $75,000 worth of funding for aspiring social entrepreneurs. Her advice comes from experience. In 2011, Michel entered the competition as a graduate student and won $2,500 in funding for a local weaving initiative aimed to help refugees from Burma. Although Michel ultimately decided to halt the project after a year, the experience was life changing.

“I truly believe that everyone has the opportunity to be an innovator and a lot of people don’t think they can create the change they want to see in the world. The students I watch, they inspire me and the skills I learned from entering have served me in everything else I’ve done.”

More Than a Competition

But competitions aren’t the only path for innovation. Patricia Marquez, dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, firmly believes that prizes are merely the end result, and that real transformation comes from a process of innovative thinking and learning.

In addition to the Idea Lab Series, which provides students with training and advice for launching their ideas, the Center for Peace and Commerce has launched another series this year, the Women Innovators Initiative.

Although similar to the Idea Labs in the sense that the meetings will connect students with mentors and resources, the new initiative is only for women. Board of Trustee member, Ann Navarra, generously donated $100,000 to establish the program to promote female entrepreneurship at USD. Although part of the money will be designated as prize money for a special Women’s Track in the Social Innovation Challenge this year, Dean Marquez intentionally created new programming to support future female innovators as well.

“The university embraces that the future is in the innovator and the fearlessness the women possess. [All of the programming] allows students the support they need in order to imagine new possibilities.”

Faculty Innovators Lead the Way for Students

But students aren’t the only innovators on campus. With grant-based funding from the university, USD’s faculty have worked hard to create innovative learning experiences that transcend the classroom altogether. In some classes, professors require students to attend Idea Labs, submit an idea to the Changemaker Challenge or volunteer in the local Linda Vista community. Unsurprisingly, USD’s professors practice what they preach. Faculty members from all departments work with the community to empower positive change through initiatives like Impact Linda Vista.

As students and faculty work hard to connect with the community, the Changemaker Hub works hard to connect faculty and students with one another. Created as a resource to foster student ideas and initiatives, the Changemaker Hub serves as a driving force of innovation on campus. Students are encouraged to attend events, meet with designated Changemaker faculty and find mentorship for their ideas.

Mike Williams, director of the Changemaker Hub and Associate Professor in Political Science and International Relations, explains, “We’re not a center or an institute. We are a hub and we exist to connect individuals to one another. One of our goals is to provide links between faculty, students and community.”

Business Ideas with Passion and Purpose

Alix Naugler, a third year Business Administration major, was one of the students who benefited from the hub's commitment to connections. Inspired by Margaret Orech's, director of the Uganda Landmine Survivors Association, powerful call for better resources to serve landmine survivors, Naugler and her team of two other students banned together to find a solution. The solution was both simple and effective: a business named Simple Seat, Better Lives that provides accessible latrines for landmine survivors. Naugler and her team walked entered the Social Innovation Challenge and won seed funding for their business, but the biggest prize was something bigger.

"Social entrepreneurship feels like a good balance between business and service,” says Naugler. “I want to inspire others and make a positive impact on an individual, local or international scale...USD has so many opportunities, especially within SBA, that if you just connect with the right professors and people, you can find others who share your similar passions and then work together to create a solution."

The Ultimate Destination for Innovation

One of the guiding principals at USD is that everyone has the possibility to innovate, the campus community strives to make it as easy as possible to take the first step. “This is a campus where students have permission to have ideas. But more importantly, they have a structure of support and encouragement to make their idea a reality,” Williams explains.

Dean Marquez echoes the sentiment, “This is the place where students can come to experiment, learn and have a direct impact on the future. This is the place for innovation.”

— Taylor Milam