Fellows Take on SXSW 2019

15 Fellows joined UIF co-directors Humera Fasihuddin and Leticia Britos Cavagnaro for SXSW in Austin, TX, in March 2019. They spent several days together learning from speakers, engaging participants, and connecting with one another.

Below are a few of their reflections on the experience.

A Scoot Through SXSW

By Jessica Aldrich, Wichita State University

After sitting in Austin traffic for what felt like hours, I was anxious to get to our house to see all of the other Fellows we would be staying with. As soon as I saw an electric scooter, I knew I found my way out of the car and to the house faster. I hopped out while we were at a stoplight and began racing my team there, hoping to beat them by a few minutes.

From that beginning action, the week didn’t slow down. I had an incredible experience exploring the city and creating deeper relationships with Fellows from across the world. I listened to talks by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Priscilla Chan and gained key insights about diversity, the future of healthcare, and experienced mindfulness in new ways. Many of my favorite moments were spent scooting around a new place with new friends, learning about their experiences and perspectives.

My four key takeaways from this experience were:

  1. Don’t be afraid to attend sessions outside of your comfort zone. I took the chance to attend a mentoring session with Mona Al-Mukhaizeem, a VC from Kuwait who began her career as an engineer before turning to investments.
  2. During a session titled “The US is Racist AF” I gained insights connecting pop culture to current events, learning that when a movement begins to get strong, the music does also.
  3. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez empowered young women, especially those from diverse backgrounds to stop trying to navigate systems of power, and instead start building our own.
  4. You can scoot anywhere if you’re brave enough, and can find one that’s charged.

I am missing the friends and community that I built during that week dearly, but I could not be more thankful for the experiences and all that I learned during that time!

The People Behind the Talks

By Spencer Lueckenotto, Wichita State University

You never know who you might meet at a conference like SXSW. Just walking on the sidewalks alone, I was introduced to successful entrepreneurs who wanted to extend their networks, as well as independent filmmakers hoping to gain a following from the masses. Around every corner, there were people willing to mingle and hear your story just as you would listen to theirs. However, the passersby were just the beginning.

Just this past semester, my roommate (who is also part of the UIFam) and I started a new student organization on our campus. We named it the Shocker Quad Club; Shocker for our campus mascot, and Quad for quadcopter (more commonly known as a drone). Our goal for this was to bring in interested students to a friendly environment where they could share their knowledge with others and gain more information from others about the evolving world of drone racing.

After hearing of a scheduled SXSW talk about the emergence of drone racing in entertainment, I instantly chose to attend. The speakers were professionals from the drone entertainment industry who have worked on aerial coverage of the most recent Super Bowl, setting up publicity events for drone racing, and creating the parts themselves that makeup drones.

The talk was very interesting, but the real value came after the scheduled program. I approached the stage after hearing what they had to share and was surprisingly greeted with a very interactive conversation. I eventually brought up our recently formed student organization and they immediately took an interest to it. Explaining a bit more about it, I was able to persuade the speakers that we are very engaged and committed to drone racing, and they ended up asking me if they could sponsor our club!

Especially at a conference of this magnitude, it can be easy to sit back and disengage from the talks that you are listening to. For me, it was the moment I walked up to that stage that made me realize that even the people up on the stage are just that: people. They have their own stories as well as us, and most of the time they are looking for someone to interact with personally after their event. I saw an immediate impact after talking with just one of the panels, and I can only imagine what other conversations would have looked like if I had just engaged with speakers at an earlier time in my life. So, all in all, don’t forget that we are all people and that conversations are not something to be afraid of, but are to be sought after and embraced.

Be Fearless

By Lucía Rodríguez Marichal, Universidad de Montevideo

Attending SXSW with a crew of Fellows was an amazing experience for many reasons. To begin with, we got to know each other better and strengthen our boundaries as a family, as we cohabitated at a home for several days. Furthermore, I felt empowered by many Fellows who were always trying to do epic sh*t by proposing stokes to the audience of SXSW before a session started.

Finally, regarding the content of the event on itself, I considered it was really inspiring. I was moved by a talk which was called “Be Fearless.” Although we all have our fears and it is fine to do so, this talk was about recognizing it and having tools to deal with them. We have our fears regarding the challenges we face at our campuses, but by no means this would stop us from working towards our goals. I would like to cite what another speaker said: “ when you focus on your enemies, you are ignoring your allies.” Although we don’t have literal enemies, we might face many rejections from members of our communities. However, as long as we keep connected with the people who are on our side, we will go towards the goal.  

Community and Leadership

By Sabrina Stangler, Milwaukee School of Engineering

SXSW was an incredible opportunity to learn! My favorite session was one that explained leadership through the lens of “Extreme Ownership,” a concept with which I was not familiar until I realized that this was the type of leadership I was employing already.

Other parts of the trip I enjoyed involved being around a dozen other incredible Fellows with many experiences and words of advice. I loved talking with Fellows about struggles I was experiencing personally or that we were working through with our cohort at MSOE – everyone had so much knowledge to share! I also enjoyed listening to stories and experiences of Fellows living in places very different than Milwaukee, WI, most notably the Fellows from Peru and Uruguay. In addition to learning lots of amazing new things at the sessions, I was able to digest the experiences with a group of incredible and diverse students. I couldn’t be more thankful!


By Jeffrey Stransky, Rowan University

I attended a talk on ethical data applications through volunteerism. Jake Porway from DataKind introduced the idea of connecting volunteer data scientists with technical problems and inefficiencies. Examples of DataKind at work include using drones to highlight potential flood hotspots to evacuate villages and developing planning algorithms to reduce burnout among foster care caseworkers. This came as a refresher to my UIF training where the technical skills that I accumulate can be applied to make a granular impact on someone’s life. #Data4Good

Embrace Radical Grace

By Sarandeep Kaur, Rowan University

In the notorious ballroom D, Alexis Jones wowed the crowd on how to make space for righteous anger, freeing ourselves from stereotypes, and getting real close to ourselves in this broken society. From taking notes to soaking everything in, Alexis and Kelly Krause (moderator) provided a refreshing take on how to channel your authentic voice through radical grace. “Our insecurities are the glue to connect us all together.” As a UIFellow, I find it crucial to create a safe space where everyone’s idea can be heard and learned from. We all have different lived experiences, from that provides us a unique opportunity to unpack our own unconscious bias and create change.

Stoked for Stokes

By Tara Rahmani, Milwaukee School of Engineering

Being in Austin for a week in a giant AirBnb with 16 Fellows plus Humera and Leticia was probably the best week of my life. Being a first-gen, I don’t have a lot of family here, and I refer to UIF as my UIFamily. So, SXSW was heckin’ amazing. One of my favorite takeaways was from the mindfulness session – which is also where we also did our first stoke! The presenter gave the advice of only staying mad at something for 15 seconds, and then after that, don’t let it consume you or any more of your time.

Another takeaway was just how diverse and inclusive and willing to get hype everyone was. It was amazing doing so many stokes with different crowds. A couple presenters gave us a “no” but most said “sure, why not?!” and when they saw how the crowd reacted – everyone was so happy and pumped. The presenter was also more pumped before their session! The ability to network with Fellows from all different places, so many people at SXSW, and Humera and Leticia for a week was so worth missing a week of school. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.


By Carolina Vassallucci, Universidad de Montevideo

I would describe this experience as heart and eye opening. This was because of two reasons. First, the conferences at SXSW were really good, because I learned valuable concepts from almost all the talks I went. Secondly, having the possibility to live with the rest of the Fellows at the same house for one week made the trip even more enriching.

Synergy is also an important word that can be used to explain how we all managed to get to know each other more and build bonds that were positive for our whole experience. Therefore, we could all manage to learn from what the rest of the group learned, regarding the conferences, but also the experiences at our universities and as change makers in general, because this is what unites us all and always will.

Igniting Changemakers at Ashoka U Exchange 2019

Transforming higher education into a tool for social innovation was the theme of the Ashoka U Exchange conference. Five Fellows and UIF program co-directors Leticia Britos Cavagnaro and Humera Fasihuddin, held activities and attended sessions at the February 2019 event in San Diego, CA.

Below are the Fellows’ reflections on the experience:

All of us are designers

By Omri Gal, Swarthmore College

“All of us are designers” – Antoinette D. Carrol, Creative Reaction Lab

For many people, design is understood as a skill utilized within the fields of art, fashion, and architecture, and is rarely perceived as a tool for social innovation/change. However, at the Ashoka U Exchange, we were able to interact with and learn from hundreds of “change makers” using design to create social change in their respective fields.

As Antoinette D. Carrol, founder of Creative Reaction Lab, eloquently described during her opening panel remarks, “All of us are designers.” Creative Reaction Lab, which was founded in response to the unrest in Ferguson, aims to encourage youth, educators, and communities to use equity-centered design to become changemakers. This approach, which builds upon the tenants of design-thinking, focuses on “dismantling systemic oppression” by “incorporating history and healing, where history is unpacked to unveil power structures and open a space for relearning” (Creative Reaction Lab, 2019). Additionally, Antoinette astutely points to how “systems of oppression, inequalities are by design,” and as such can be dismantled through design.

In October 2018, I launched Design FC, an after school program in Chester (PA) teaching 5th/6th graders creative thinking through a soccer jersey/apparel design project. Following a successful first semester of programming, I am now working with students to plan the launch of Design FC’s online marketplace, and a final event to showcase the work we have done. Central to these projects, is amplifying the voices of my students, a concept which Antoinette discussed extensively in her panel. The words of Antoinette, and more broadly my experience at the Ashoka Exchange, have pushed me think of ways to develop Design FC so that students are completely in the spotlight and feel a sense of ownership over the program. Further, the Ashoka Exchange has reinforced my understanding of design as a multi-disciplinary tool that is relevant to almost every aspect of our lives. The immense power of design, which was evident throughout the Ashoka, has made me both reevaluate my current work, and future aspirations.

I am a Changemaker

By Winter Wilson, Ohio University

Student. Journalist. Environmentalist. Musician. Creative. Innovator. Etc, etc. These were all ways in which I defined myself, but the Ashoka U Exchange exposed me to an entirely new identity: changemaker. In a world that seems to experience a steady decline of compassion and popular desire to effect positive change, having a bit of “change the world” in us as Fellows might just be our superpower.

During the Ashoka exchange, I had the opportunity to engage with people from across educational sectors about the need for social innovation and entrepreneurship principles in higher education. My biggest takeaway is that we must use education as a tool to encourage students to assess how the things they create or do will change the world or make a difference. Whether you’re an engineer, a musician, an environmentalist or a journalist. As a result of the exchange, I have been thinking critically about the ways in which my university fosters this type of growth, and how I can utilize our new collaboration space to implement many of these ideas.

So I ask you, Fellows, to consider a few questions as I am: how might we measure success by changemaking? How might we harness our changemaker identities for the betterment of the people, communities and world around us? How might we commit to a new level of impact? And how might we encourage others to do the same?

Visibility and Social Enterprise

By Amita Shukla, Columbia University

Columbia prides itself on being the most activist school in the Ivy League, and indeed one of the most activist and aware schools in the country. This is part of the reason I chose Columbia, and I’ve found it to be true in the two and a half years I’ve been here so far. But I’ve also found that many Columbia students have trouble channeling that enthusiasm into a longer-term vision beyond their four years here, having only a vague and often dismal sense of what non-profit or social enterprise options might look like, combined with a hyper-awareness of what paths in finance and consulting look like.

Through my time with the University Innovation Fellows program, I’ve been working on creating more visibility around those socially aware post-grad career choices available to students. Even as someone actively seeking those voices and those spaces, however, I found myself struggling to find good examples of the kinds of social enterprises I was trying to describe and knew existed. The Ashoka U conference was an amazing opportunity for exposure to exactly those people and ideas. After attending Ashoka U, I left with both contacts and venues by which myself and other Columbia students can further explore these paths. To help with Columbia’s University Innovation Fellows project, I was also able to get many other schools’ social innovation syllabi.

And through Ashoka U’s inaugural Tech and Changemaking track that the University Innovation Fellows participated in, I also gained many new perspectives about how technical leaders in particular approach social enterprise. All too often the “build-an-app” mindset dominates at such discussions, but Ashoka U Tech and Changemaking attendees had a refreshingly broad set of approaches to using tech. In particular, I was impressed by the Social Impact Media Awards’ immersive VR refugee camp videos and the Solutions U journalism database, which I am excited to share with my Columbia peers as effective non-app, tech-based changemaking strategies. And my attendance at the track felt truly participatory: I came away with a new opportunity to apply my data skills in partnership with one of the Ashoka Fellows, in tracking the paths stolen guns, and also am exploring a partnership with her to use those datasets in a class I’m a TA for, further bringing back my experience to Columbia. I left with the sobering but also exciting realization that many others even at the forefront of the field are still trying to define what their relationship to data should be, and that this shaping is something that I get to be part of throughout my career.

Overall, attending the Ashoka U conference with the University Innovation Fellows was an invaluable learning experience. The other University Innovation Fellows I met through the conference will continue to be friends, inspiration, and a support network as we all continue to apply everything we learned. After attending Ashoka U, I resolve to help spread my newfound awareness of different paths in social enterprise to the Columbia community.

Finding Hope

By Mahmoud Khedr, City College of New York

Being at Ashoka U was an amazing opportunity that I’m so grateful to have been able to be part of. It provided me with so many insights into what’s happening in other campuses across the world in regards to social movements, entrepreneurship, and innovation. More simply put, it convened the amazing community of changemakers across the globe who shared their best practices, key learnings, models that work, and went above and beyond to ensure inclusivity. I felt it in different moments — in the opening speech given by Mentor Dida, where he recalls his childhood as a refugee and how that impacted all of his work today, and in one-on-one conversations with Presidents, Directors of Innovation Centers, philanthropists, administrators, and students.

I came to Ashoka to learn about how to enhance and continue building a changemaking revolution on campus. I got that, but also left with something that I feel is more important; hope. Hope that the work that is being done does not going unnoticed, that although things may get dark, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Hope that it’s not about me, or my college, City College of New York, but it’s about the collective action that we’re taking together to make this world a better place. Thank you to the University Innovation Fellows program and team (Humera, Leticia) for making this happen. I look forward to next year’s convening!

Including Everyone

By Gabriela Gonjon, City College of New York

The Ashoka U Exchange showcased a small world where students, faculty, administrators, and organizations around higher education worked together to flexibly create social change through their spheres of influence. I knew from the Ashoka U website that this conference would have been amazing. They hosted interactive workshops and panels about interesting talks. I crammed extra work hours during my winter break to make just enough money for my plane ticket and didn’t regret a penny.

The overall attitude of the people at the convention was incredibly warm and inviting. It was great to hear people from diverse aspects of education. Ashoka U focused on how inclusivity with diverse perspectives is essential for any mission. An important insight was how working with people from specific perspectives on a situation are necessary for social change. If I want to solve a problem for a disadvantaged group of people, I need more than interviews and research on them. I need their perspectives at the table of making decisions.

I met a woman named Sonia Galiber at on the night before the convention for the Dinner of Solidarity for people of color. She organized this dinner and other events at the convention with her partner. She and her partner noticed in the previous conference had a lack of diversity in all aspects such as the number of students and community organizers compare to the number of people who are administrators in academia. She brought this up to Ashoka U and they later created a board with her. This board now overlooks how diversity is included in the conference. The impact she had from voicing her perspective was tremendous.  

My experience at the conference would have been completely different if diversity and inclusion was not a major focus. It was very well conveyed throughout the conference. After hearing from panelist and attendees on many perspectives it showed how important it is to include all types of people in a situation as well as my own voice. Now I understand that thoroughly interviewing the people I want to impact is important, but collaborating and ideating alongside the people within a situation is powerful for creating well-rounded solutions. It is important to take time and establish what types of people are impacted and where are they being representing in the project. From now and on my first question when I sit down at a table for decision making is “What perspectives aren’t included in this conversation?”