• "GESI is about engaging a world that is bigger, more exciting, and more complex than most people imagine. This abroad experience has allowed me to learn more about myself as a student, a partner in the work world, and as a member of humanity, and I'm looking forward to my continued growth in all these capacities."

    - Tarik Patterson

  • "GESI is not a program that teaches you how to help others. It is one that enables you to turn "others" into "us". It is real living with real people, and immerses you into a culture that is as sophisticated and complex as your own."

    - Michelle Kim

  • "GESI exposed me to the difficult but rewarding realities of community development: True impact comes from work at the grittiest level. If you're considering a career in a non-profit, NGO, social work, or anything that supports your community, an experience like this is vital."

    - Kirk Vaclavik

  • "There are two ways of learning: by keeping your nose to a book or by opening your eyes to the world. GESI provides the rare learning opportunity as it combines both forms. I know I have walked away invariably changed for the better."

    - Kalindi Shah

  • "Our project involved community members in every conceivable way. My relationships built with community members were my most proud and lasting accomplishments."

    –Sebastian Buffa

  • "I was looking for an opportunity to create lasting change--both in a community and in myself. GESI sets its participants up with the necessary tools and skills, and then gives them complete freedom to learn, fail, rework, and eventually succeed."

    - Rena Oppenheimer

  • "The program has given me a glimpse into what it is like to work internationally at the grassroots level. Having the hands on experience that the program has given me, I feel like I am one step ahead for other jobs in the development sector."

    - Ashley Fu

  • "The experience has given me a new perspective on everything from washing the dishes to how to address world hunger... I will be returning to the lessons I learned on this trip decades from now."

    - Alexis Suskin-Sperry

  • "The most unique aspect of this program is the opportunity to act on a theory that we had learned. GESI is a unique opportunity to experience how development theories, methodologies and practices actually play out in a community."

    - Lakshmi Ramachandran

  • "I will always treasure my home-stay experience. I became very close with my siblings and loved having a large family. I learned that wherever you are, a family is a family and life is lived day to day."

    - Ellen Abrams

  • "My home-stay was one of the best aspects of my summer. My sisters taught me so much about Ugandan culture as well as life in general. We have grown up on different sides of the world but we may as well as lived next door."

    - Chelsea Christman

  • "Professor Arntson's team building exercises and classes about group dynamics were invaluable. They gave our team the vocabulary and tools to mediate conflicts and make decisions while abroad and helped us understand each other's motivations."

    - Catherine Wu

  • "Our NGO let us work independently, but took co-ownership of our project, which was comforting as we were creating a proposal for them and we required input and feedback to know that our work had a purpose."

    - Elizabeth Montgomery

  • "Being at our NGO was the single best part of the trip. I loved the community, and I loved the people there. It is an amazing NGO that does amazing things. The challenges we faced taught us to overcome obstacles."

    - Alex Grubman

  • "The FSD site team was incredible. I've never worked with such capable, caring, fun people. They made me feel so at home and safe and also really supported us with our NGO."

    - Asha Toulmin

  • "I am very impressed by the commitment and intelligence of the fellow students in GESI. I definitely learned much from them."

    - XinKai Cheng

  • "The diversity of our group made us effective -- while others preferred to work on logistical, behind-the-scenes stuff; some were outspoken, others were more contemplative; some were better planners, some were better at actuating ideas on paper."

    - Abby Hannifan

  • "This program gave new meaning to hands on learning. The background at the institute on development was great, and a week later you were on site attempting to implement what you had learned, and in the process learning far more than you could imagine."

    - Rachel Suffrin

  • "The most unique thing was the amount of exposure we got to the community. I felt like I was a part of it and not just observing it."

    - Bryan Stenson

  • "This experience was absolutely applicable to my personal, professional, academic goals, especially when it comes to approaching development with a realistic perception of how it works on the ground."

    - Elizabeth Montgomery

  • "GESI has helped me mature as a team member and a prospective development worker."

    - C.A.


GESI was first conceived in 2005 by 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.

Sophie Ostlund, who participated in the first GESI program, speaks with members of her host-community in northern Uganda.

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 training 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 that could help students in the field, and then help students reflect on what they had learned by working in a development project. The Center, they hoped, would provide the training and capacity-building young people would need to run, start, or participate in international development, service, and social entrepreneurship.

GESI students receiving training in community consulting.

From these student-initiated roots, and together with support from across campus–including the Office of the Provost, Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies, School of Education and Social Policy, and School of Communications–the Center for Global Engagement (CGE), and its signature program, the Global Engagement Studies Institute developed.

Northwestern emphasizes interdisciplinary excellence while also supporting bottom-up student innovations like the Global Engagement Summit, Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights, GlobeMed, and more. At CGE, 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 training culturally competent future change-makers. Specifically, Northwestern houses the Asset-Based-Community Development Institute, which provides the theoretical approach and expert training to ground the GESI program.

Over the past six years, GESI has expanded from one country (Uganda) to six and has hosted over 275 students from more than 50 universities.