Fourth Global Engagement Summit begins at Norris

Amanda Laabs

Today 80 social entrepreneurs representing 15 countries around the world will descend upon Norris University Center to participate in the Global Engagement Summit – a movement for social change created and implemented completely by Northwestern undergraduates. Now in its fourth year, the five-day annual conference kicks off today in what organizers said is sure to be its largest and most influential year yet.

GES seeks to provide better resources and training for students involved in social entrepreneurship and international development through workshops, discussions and peer-to-peer interaction. The movement has seen an exponential growth in interest and participation over the past four years, allowing for improvements in both curriculum and opportunities available to participants, said co-Director Rajni Chandrasekhar.

“As the group has become more rooted in the fabric of NU, we’ve acquired the resources to expand in size, scope and creativity,” the Weinberg senior said. “We’ve really been able to make social change a less mysterious idea.”

The ability to provide opportunities to achieve tangible results is what drew former delegate and current workshop facilitator Alex Merkovic back to GES after his first year. Three years ago, the Florida State University junior started work on his own grassroots development project, but he said he felt lost as to the next steps until he attended GES.

“It was different from any conference I’d ever been to,” he said. “It was completely student-run and very action-oriented … After attending, everything I was trying to do felt solidified. It felt like everything was falling into place.”

Although the conference has not yet started, international delegate Ricardo Pillay, a third-year student at Rhodes University in South Africa, said he has been impressed by how GES is able to bring together students from around the world to work on similar issues.

“I think it’s a great way to build capacity – being exposed to various international delegates, dealing with similar challenges,” Pillay said. “We have been networking, sharing the same experiences, frustrations and successes.”

Emily Eisenhart, a GES co-director and Weinberg senior, said GES is unique in its ability to cultivate each and every delegate’s capacity to create change. The summit helps build awareness of the tools available to help them with achieving their goals, she said.

“GES is more than just a conference,” she said. “It’s a movement.”

The summit was created in 2005 by NU undergraduates Nathaniel Whittemore, Weinberg ’06, and John Marino, SESP ’06. Over the past four years, both Eisenhart and Chandrasekhar said they have seen a notable increase in NU students’ interest in GES; at the Fall Quarter Student Activities Fair last year, more than 200 people signed up, a number the co-directors said they were not expecting. The GES staff has grown from about 40 members in 2005 to more than 100 this year.

“The growth shows that there are so many NU students who are fascinated by the concept of social change but don’t know how to engage,” Chandrasekhar said. “GES is a way to do this outside of the classroom.”

Despite the summit’s growth, Eisenhart said the core values and mission of GES have stayed, a fact which Merkovic considers most important.

“It’s the most important training I’ve ever received,” Merkovic said. “Hands-down, it’s the best tool out there to develop social entrepreneurship.”

[email protected],edu