- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009

College students are pouring onto campuses across the country. This annual ritual arrives with an important set of questions for these emerging leaders: What do you want to get out of your college experience? What kind of leader do you want to be when you graduate? What contributions do you want to make to the world around you?

The most forward-thinking of universities are not just asking the questions, they are creating programs to back them up. These schools realize we need to prepare students to take on a dizzying array of complex challenges now facing our world. Readying them for the typical job path is no longer adequate. Rather, tomorrow’s leaders must be innovative problem solvers who can connect the dots across disciplines to create breakthrough solutions to issues such as global hunger, poverty, education and health care. They must become the problem solvers who push the bounds of technology and develop new means of communicating, connecting, traveling, healing and conserving.

A glance at the work of recent graduates reveals the possibilities. Since 1999, MIT’s Technology Review has selected innovators younger than 35 whose work is reshaping our world. This year’s winners include a 31-year-old who is working to develop cheaper, high-energy batteries to store renewable energy and a 28-year-old who has created a free screen reader to allow visually impaired people to browse the Web.

Jose Gomez-Marquez, a native of Honduras, is working to develop low-cost, highly durable ways to deliver health care solutions into the developing world. Inspired by a call from the World Health Organization for new ways to deliver the measles vaccine, Mr. Gomez-Marquez organized a team and developed individual vaporizers preloaded with the vaccine. They also were able to stabilize the vaccine without cold storage - critical in a developing world context.

The invention won an award for International Technology at the MIT IDEAS Competition in 2006 (when Mr. Gomez-Marquez was 29) and recently received funding from the National Institutes of Health for further development. Mr. Gomez-Marquez has been hired by MIT to run the Innovations in International Health Program - a great opportunity to help inspire the next generation of innovators.

MIT is not alone in cultivating such talent. The University of Southern California, for example, has appointed a vice provost for innovation and created the Stevens Institute for Innovation. Among the activities being promoted by the institute are a Student Innovator Showcase and Competition and a Social Innovation Fast Pitch - a two-month training and mentoring program connecting students with innovative nonprofits working to effect change in Los Angeles.

At Duke University (where Christopher Gergen runs the undergraduate social entrepreneurship program), Hart Leadership Program students are partnered with Durham, N.C., nonprofits to develop innovative solutions to pressing community problems. The projects include developing a business plan for a new teen center with the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club and creating a new restaurant concept to provide job-training opportunities for the transitionally homeless.

The university also has launched DukeEngage, which provides funding for Duke undergraduates who want to pursue an immersive summer service experience and address a specific community need. This past summer, more than 350 students participated in the program in roughly 40 nations. Projects included launching mentoring and school enrichment programs, producing environmental education documentaries, and creating microfinance opportunities for disadvantaged women and families.

These kinds of initiatives are sprouting up far from our shores as well. For example, Oxford University in the United Kingdom is the annual host of the Skoll World Forum of Social Entrepreneurship (launched by Jeff Skoll, a founding executive at eBay), where more than 700 global change agents converge to discuss next-generation solutions to our world’s greatest challenges.

Whatever issues we face, we will need smart, motivated, well-prepared innovators to lead the way. This is the charge of our education system. As the examples above demonstrate, many are answering the call. Our challenges are daunting, but our talent pool is deep. The question on our campuses (and beyond) is: How do we best harness this potential?

Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are co-authors of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives” and founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, a personal leadership development firm. They can be reached at authors@life entrepreneurs.com.

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