A Tech Solution to the Student Debt Crisis?

The Online Platform that Can Revolutionize the Student Economy

Among all of the social challenges facing the U.S. millennial, student debt and career development is by far one of the greatest obstacles for this generation. When I was making decisions regarding where I was going to attend university, I trusted that the economy was going to be there for me to gain a respectable income. Graduation day 2009 presented a completely different reality, one that I know many U.S. millennials are currently living. This crisis has been likened to the housing bubble, and many experts fear that it could have serious impacts on the U.S. economy as millennials are rising to prominence in this economy.

Although the outlook is quite bleak on this issue, I had the opportunity to interview a 24 year old Pittsburgher who is challenging the nature of work for current university students – Mark Heckmann of Student InTuition. His startup provides a revolutionary approach to start chipping away at the student debt crisis.

How It Works

Student InTuition is an online platform that matches students with businesses that have short term projects that current university students can do – and pays them for it. Such a model allows current students to gain real work experience and businesses to hire students without the burden of searching for good talent. Current students simply log-on, create a profile, and Student InTuition does the rest.

How It Started

As Mark tells it, about a year ago he was sitting at a board meeting for his alma mater, Denison University, where the Board of Trustees was exploring the increasingly concerning situation facing university students: increased student debt and lack of actual work experience.

At the time Mark was studying at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College obtaining a Master in Public Policy and Management and found himself trying to find a solution to this very serious problem. He then joined a student-run incubator at Carnegie Mellon, IdeaLab, where Mark was able to have access to a solid feedback community comprised of other start-up leaders. Then, he took a Social Innovation course where he was able to develop the framework for the company and apply for a spot at Pittsburgh’s newly established Thrill Mill’s Hustle Den. While at the Hustle Den, Mark was able to get more professional, legal, programming, and office space support that helped create the legitimate social enterprise: Student InTuition.

Mark’s Lessons

Having a million dollar idea is one thing, but getting the timing just right can make all the difference. As Mark said:

A big part of launching a company is timing – are the market conditions right for such a thing to exist? Oftentimes you can have a great business concept, but the timing is incorrect, so you wait for the conditions to become favorable. In our case, investment in Ed Tech companies has been very strong, and the debt issue has been a prominent part of public discourse.

Not only were the external factors in his favor, but he had the rare opportunity to develop his business while in school with the tools his institution had to offer. Using the tools available, can be the support system any entrepreneur needs to get an idea off the ground.

When asked about what are the other advantages of being a young entrepreneur, Mark said:

…millennials understand the importance of being connected. The adages about networking continue to apply, and the companies that truly make change are ones who ask questions, seek feedback and promote their cause shamelessly. Our generation is better equipped to do those things than others.

Connectedness and timing, though crucial, are nothing for an entrepreneur without this element:

…it’s critical to recognize that you can have a voice on an issue, even a big one. There are many people with far more training, work experience and expertise than me out there, but they do not share the same interest, passion and empathy on this issue with me. And that becomes a distinguishable, credible mark for an entrepreneur – which their unique skill set and interest in a sector could create value in ways that have never been thought of before. But you must have the confidence to have a voice on an issue – absent that; you cannot be serious about your business.

If you want to learn more about Student Intituion, check out their website: http://studentintuition.com/ or follow them on Twitter @studentin2ition and post below if you know of any other great efforts on tackling the student loan crisis.

How Soccer (Futbol) Can Save the World

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While governments and corporations have sunk millions of dollars in educating the world about HIV/AIDS, one Pittsburgher, Justin Forzano, has led the Cameroon Football Development Program (CFDP) to apply a different kind of prevention: education through soccer clubs. 

We have all heard of the benefits of participating in team sports: teamwork, leadership skills, and self-confidence. Combine those benefits with group discussions and mentoring opportunities and you have a strong strategy to making an impact on a country that has been heavily affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Cameroon Football Development Program was founded in Spring 2010 by Peter Ngwane and Justin Forzano. Although an uncommon approach, bringing something as natural as soccer together with something so practical, like disease prevention, has had a huge impact on the community of Kumba, Cameroon. Like many developing countries, Cameroon suffers from a variety of issues like corruption, poverty, the implications of its colonial history and a strong nationwide desire to “get out” and find better opportunities. This exodus of talent is known as “brain drain,” the flight of able, intelligent youth in search of better opportunities abroad. The communities left behind deal with skill gaps, fragmentation within their community, and create the right conditions for significant community decline. CFDP’s model is designed to change all of that.Image

Through partnering with local volunteers and identifying key community leaders, CFDP works with Kumba to provide a variety of programs: Leadership Training, After School Programs, a Youth League, and Girls Soccer Camps, in addition to a variety of special events. This year alone, they have involved over 500 youths in the area and engaged with regional organizations like United Action for Children, Play Soccer International, to expand their programs to other regions of the country.

But how does an engineering student from the University of Dayton get involved with helping the community of Kumba in distant Africa? It all started with a summer study abroad trip with his professor and a deep love for soccer. “From the first time I visited Kumba, I fell in love with Cameroon. The people, the culture, the food, the music and the importance of soccer.” Justin’s first visit to Cameroon demonstrated to him just how the United States has such excess, especially when it came to equipment for sports. “We were playing a game of football (soccer) on a dirt field and the locals were either sharing boots, playing with flip flops, or even without shoes. In the U.S. we just throw away these things even if they are in good shape.” Dealing with such an impression, Justin began asking how to connect those in Cameroon with those who have excess equipment in the United States. The following summer, Justin went back with a full set of jerseys and was met with wild enthusiasm in Kumba. Five years later, the set is still intact and is being passed around from club to club. 

What can be the most complicated obstacle for start-up nonprofits; can be making the link between the local community and the recipient community.  CFDP overcomes this obstacle by sticking to their mainstay: soccer. On the first weekend of August, they kicked off their fall season of Pittsburgh based fundraising events with a soccer tournament at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of learning lawn. With 9 teams participating, CFDP not only organized a fun Sunday tournament, but involved the local Cameroonian-American and African-American communities with kicking off the event with a drumming performance and authentic Cameroonian food.

Even if you were not able to attend their soccer tournament, CFDP has a variety of ways in which you can get involved. Whether it is sponsoring a team or participating in the Play for a Purpose program, check out http://www.cameroonfdp.com/ or follow them @CameroonFDP. 

 

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The importance of having Faith

The other night,  I had a conversation with my devout Catholic father about why more young people were not involved in the church. He initially pointed to video games and movies and the rush of our modern day lives. The more we talked and the more I thought about it the more I kept thinking about how lonely it can be in your 20’s. 

When our parents were our age they had the house, the kids, the family near by because no one ever left, and the worship or school community where they could commiserate with other burnt out parents. Despite the flaws of religious institutions and the harm many have inflicted on members of the community, nothing has the gathering force of a well supported place of worship. In all of these ways it was less common for our parents to experience feelings of isolation and lonliness, because they had no choice but to be surrounded by the nosy neighbors or the very involved community members.

While I loved living in Pittsburgh, feeling close to a community was what I was missing. This whole time that I’ve been in Florida I’ve taken notice of how being home is not as suffocating as it used to be or as restricting. Going out of my comfort zone is what I needed at the time. I needed to learn about what I wanted out of life and truly destroy who I was before and grow into the adult I need to be. I’m still not sure what that looks like, but that’s just part of the adventure. Being able to be at my childhood church has contributed to creating that sense of community.  Where do you go to find that sense of community?

Life: It’s Like an Outdoor Shower

They say that in times of transition that we learn the most about ourselves. I think its mostly because we are caught in our most vulnerable state, like bathing in an outdoor shower. You’re outside, so its out of your (and society’s) comfort zone and feels a bit risque, but yet so nice to bask in your vulnerability. The more you let go and enjoy the freedom, the closer you dance with the danger of being caught by a passersby, or unsuspecting comrade. If you are caught in this excruciatingly mortifying predicament, you find yourself making a crash landing back to reality and become acutely aware of your surroundings. Once you recover from complete mortification, you try to grasp at whatever reverie you were in because you were on the brink of some wonderful revelation.

That whole process, though painful for the psyche and the accidental Peeping Tom, is how I have sort of felt after each transition: graduating from college, graduating from graduate school, and accepting the fact that I was unhappy with where my life was, etc. I would find myself lost in the calamity that is the ending of a phase, only to be left with the acute awareness of the beauty and the foul nature of our reality. For example, when I completed graduate school I was completely overwhelmed with the opportunities and the deeply held belief that I could single-handedly be involved in “saving the world,” but I was also overwhelmed by the possibility of becoming a complete failure left to live off the streets for the rest of my days.

But as I have been navigating this current transition, the quote from the great philosopher Epictetus continues to come to mind: It is not what happens to you, but how you react that matters. You’ve gotta trust a man that was once a slave, then became a philosopher, and then was banished when it comes to dealing with life’s challenges… and if he was able to focus on the present, then why can’t I?

I, as well as the rest of my type-A peers, get so wrapped up in “the plan” and when things don’t follow it exactly, we feel like the world is crashing in on our outdoor shower. How have we let ourselves see these “bumps in the road” as negative and wrong, when really – it’s just life? If we just embraced ourselves —childhood battle scars, muffin tops, and all— for who we are, would we be able to see through these catastrophes and see them for what they are: unfortunate events? Well, while you scramble for a towel, I’m going to practice flaunting and celebrating the spontaneous for it is a practiced skill, not a talent.

Pictures from: 

http://www.heroicstoic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Epictetus-Feature-1000×288.jpg

http://homedecorremodeling.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/wooden-wild-jungle-outdoor-shower-design-ideas.jpg

The Wall Finally Broke: The Lessons I Learned From Failing

Last week, I learned about the law of attraction and how if you put something out into the universe, the universe will respond. Now, I totally thought this was a load of bull because, let’s be real, we are the masters of our own destiny …. right? Well, a couple Tuesdays ago I was lamenting to a friend of mine about how depleted I felt because I was so miserable at my job. I equated it to banging my head against a wall and the wall was showing no sign of damage nor was it causing enough pain that it would force me to stop. It was only a matter of time until one of them did. The next day, my boss called me in for a heart to heart. By the end of the conversation and a parting of ways was settled upon. Day after that, I happened upon a free week long teleconference by Christine Hassler that brought together experts on how to “upgrade” the various aspects of your life.

Call it coincidence or call it the power of the law of attraction, either way I found myself recuperating from the all too common challenge that all people, especially 20-somethings face: failure. Learning how to overcome and build back better from failure is crucial to succeeding in life, especially for those of us who aspire to be influential in this world. It is not enough to have excellent ideas or develop a beautiful vision, but truly successful leaders know how to learn from failing. I have seen this advice given by several thought leaders, and often thought about how that could possibly relate to me.

Reflecting back on my professional experience, I realized that I struggled to bring the best version of myself to work and allowed myself to fall into a vortex of misery and whining. I avoided making new friends and focused solely on how I was stuck in this awful situation with no solution. As awful as it was, I can now say I learned so much about myself and what parameters I need to be successful.  Some of those parameters are: a supportive and positive work environment, the sun (I guess you really can’t take Florida out of the girl), and the ability to connect with diverse cultures.

What about you? How did you overcome a failure and what lessons did you learn from that experience? What are some parameters that you need to be successful?

Our World is Changing, but Are We?

I went to a community discussion several weeks ago in anticipation as of the DOMA decision announcement. And as we discussed gay rights abroad, gay rights at home, and the right to marry, among other things, one of the panelists reminded us that nothing was permanent. He pointed to the Roe v. Wade decision, a Supreme Court decision that was seen as a huge victory for women’s rights. Forty years later, and across the country legislation to restrict a woman’s ability to have an abortion is becoming increasingly popular, making Roe v. Wade practically irrelevant.

As the rest of the week unfurled, other historic events took place in the marble halls that house our federal government ranging from removing the protections of minority voter rights in the Supreme Court to immigration policy reform in the Senate. All of these momentous decisions will have direct impacts on our daily lives….eventually. What actually impacts us today didn’t even get discussed before Congress took off for their summer homes: student loan debt.

Caring about what happens in D.C., let alone our state capitals, is time consuming and often so depressing that it is just better to find more funny cat memes (guilty!) But, sparring with your Facebook frenemy over the role of government in our lives isn’t particularly helpful either. What happened to the book burning, thunderous protesting, in-your-face statements of how we feel about our government? Are we unknowingly living in scarily realistic version of the Hunger Games? Or is it that we have given up on the system before we even tried to change it?

 I always think back on what a friend of mine said when John Mayer came out with “Waiting on the World to Change.” While I kept turning up the car radio whenever John’s magical voice would grace the speakers, my friend Amit would turn it down in disgust and say, “Why do we have to wait for change when we can make it happen now?”

As this is something I struggle with, what are the best ways to get involved in changing the world? How do you even pick which one to devote your time to?

The Internship – the unexpected lesson

Turning an idea into a reality is often easier said than done. Everyday I open up my Twitter account or favorite news page to inspiring stories of people who are turning their back on conventional life paths to pursue their dreams.

Although these success stories kickstart my little dream machine, the logical side of me starts to wonder: could that really happen for anyone? Or are there a set conditions that allow these “everyday” people to rise to the top and live out their dreams?

From a Millennial’s perspective, I desperately want to believe that hard work and belief will pay off (a la every Disney movie ever made.) But it has become increasingly hard for me to buy into all of that, especially when today’s reality is terrifying and ridden with strife.

This debate was played out in the feel-good summer movie: The Internship with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. As two middle aged workers refusing to become obsolete, Wilson and Vaughn take internships with Google in an attempt to turn their lives around. Critics will note that the film followed a similar storyline to Wedding Crashers (a favorite of mine) and other Owen + Vince films, but The Internship warmed my heart by showing how the “entitled” millennials have really been robbed of their ability to dream with reckless abandon and believe that they can achieve those dreams.

Well, much like The Internship I hope to find real people who have achieved their dream lives by opening their own businesses or starting their own non-profits. I plan to share their experiences and their insights so that we can learn and be inspired by the changemakers of tomorrow.