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.
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.
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 seven and has hosted over 275 students from more than 50 universities.