GESI has grown substantially since its inception in 2007. From a student-initiated vision for comprehensive academic and practical preparation, to over 120 student-community partnerships, GESI continues to thrive and promote global social change.

The idea for GESI emerged in 2005 from a group of undergraduate students led by Nathaniel Whittemore, then a Northwestern University junior, who had recently returned from volunteering at refugee camps outside Cairo. Talking with dozens of other students volunteering and researching abroad, Whittemore realized that he was not alone in feeling a gap between the desire and ability to make a difference in the world: “The story among my peers was pretty common… tons and tons of passion and energy, a deep belief and desire to connect across cultural, religious, and national borders to make a better world, and frustration at the lack of support, infrastructure, resources, and education necessary to really move beyond our good intentions. Young people knew they didn’t have the skills or resources needed to impact the problems they were trying to solve; they didn’t even know where to get those things.” 

Whittemore and a fellow Northwestern student, Jon Marino, went in search of academic coursework that could be combined with off-campus experiential learning to help students gain the tools they needed to be agents of change. Rather than founding another program to raise awareness of global issues, they sought to create an academic center at Northwestern University that would provide the educational tools and experiences to equip students in the field, and then help students reflect on what they had learned by working on a development project. This place, they hoped, would provide the preparation and capacity-building young people would need to run, start, or participate in international development, service, and social entrepreneurship.

From these student-initiated roots, and together with partners from across campus—including the Office of the Provost, Buffett Institute for Global Studies, School of Education and Social Policy, and School of Communications—the global engagement programs at the Buffett Institute, and especially the Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI), developed. 

At the Buffett Institute we have leveraged the strengths of Northwestern University’s unique programming and faculty as well as the ideas of our globally active students to grow GESI into a leading program for preparing culturally competent future change-makers. Specifically, Northwestern houses the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, which provides the theoretical approach and pedagogy to ground the GESI program. Northwestern emphasizes interdisciplinary excellence while also supporting grassroots student innovations like the Global Engagement Summit, Northwestern University Community on Human Rights, GlobeMed, and more. 

Since their founding, these programs have impacted over 1,500 students from institutions across the country and around the globe.