More than passion

Western’s eight IDEA Changemaker Fellows work to bring the change they want to see in the world
Story by Mary Gallagher
“Action is the only way forward for them because they each feel like they’re holding the world in their hands.”
Juan Galvez
Juan Galvez: Sharing a Love for Mexican Music and Culture
Stephanie Arroyo
Stephanie Arroyo: A Fitness Program for Womxn of Color
Steven Simmons
Steven Simmons: Re-Entry Programs for Formerly Incarcerated Students
Phil Swisher
Phil Swisher: Conservation's Landlord-Tenant Problem

Every time a student walks in to her wedge-shaped Arntzen Hall office vibrating with the need to make a difference, Danica Kilander, ’13, asks something like this: 

On a scale of one to 10, what’s your commitment to making this change in the world? Eight? Nine? Hm. 

Kilander, associate director of Western’s IDEA Institute, isn’t looking for students who are merely willing to juggle their jobs and classes to work on something that will make the world better. She’s looking for students who are an unstoppable force, who have a kind of inspiring—and even maddening—single-minded devotion to understanding and addressing a problem. Those are the students she recruits for the IDEA Institute’s Changemaker Fellowship.

“Action is the only way forward for them,” Kilander says, “because they each feel like they’re holding the world in their hands.” 

This year’s Changemaker Fellows pursued projects on the politics of language, support for formerly incarcerated students, and justice for undocumented immigrants. One wants to compensate students who are planning cultural events on campus. A fellow created a wellness program for women of color, while another organized Western’s first conference for young mariachi musicians. One fellow is planning a road trip documentary featuring people with a zero-waste lifestyle while another tackled the thorny problem of improving energy efficiency in rental housing. 

They meet once a week to work on their projects and share ideas. Kilander teaches them some basics of project management, marketing and crafting an elevator pitch to resonate with audiences. Occasionally, she makes a call to someone on campus who could help, but the fellows are often their own inspiration and coaches. 

“They get inspired by each other,” says Kilander, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies. “Somebody might have a low week or two, and they hear these stories of success and it builds a fire again. Other times, when someone has a question, a fellow will get up and share a tool or lesson of their own.” 

The fellowship is supported by the IDEA Institute—InterDisciplinary Entrepreneurship in Action—which focuses on unleashing more entrepreneurial and innovative leaders. About 80 to 100 students are enrolled in the institute’s interdisciplinary minor in entrepreneurship. 

Thanks to a $25,000 grant in fall 2017, the Changemaker Fellows also received funding fall and winter quarters to focus on their passion projects. This makes the fellowship more accessible to low-income students, Kilander says. 

“The people who deeply understand these problems are often the people who have experienced them some way in their personal lives,” she says. “Often, these students have three or four jobs outside Western. We try to buy out some of their hours so they can put their focus into their commitments and passions.” 

Changemaker fellowships are about building capacity in the student to make change in the future, not just what they can accomplish before they graduate. Not every successful fellowship ends with a completed project, Kilander says. It’s about deepening their knowledge of the problems—and their own commitments to addressing them. 

“Fellows might identify barriers, but they will work right along with other people to take them down,” Kilander says. “That’s what makes them unique and powerful. I want a million more like them in our world.”

Click on the portraits below to learn more about the IDEA Changemaker Fellows.

Victoria Matey Mendoza
Victoria Matey Mendoza: Human Rights for Undocumented Immigrants
Hugo Sanchez Garcia
Hugo Sanchez Garcia: Valuing the Unpaid Labor of Students of Color
Gwen Larned
Gwen Larned: Zero-Waste Roadtrip
Maria José Palacios Figueroa
Maria José Palacios Figueroa: Beyond Language

is editor of Window magazine

Photos by Rhys Logan ('11), Video by Suzanne Blais, Rhys Logan and Robert Clark