A Year in the Life of a University Innovation Fellow
University Innovation Fellow Jessica Carlson walks us through a year in the life of a Fellow from application to impact.
by Jessica Carlson
In late October 2016, I was nominated to the first University Innovation Fellows (UIF) Leadership Circle at Menlo College with three other students: Yasmin Gomez, Maxwell Barnes and Russell Perkins. From interviews to our acceptance to the start of a rigorous online training program, I had no idea the journey that lay ahead of me. My team and I were so excited for an opportunity to impact Menlo College!
After completing a detailed application, which included written and video responses, we were accepted into the program as UIF candidates and began our six-week online training program the last week of winter break. We had to be on top of our weekly team assignments, which were due every Thursday night.
Throughout the six weeks of training, I got to know my cohort as if they were friends I had known my entire life. We were thrown into this program with no previous student leaders to help us and a major learning curve in understanding the program; ultimately, all we had were each other. Working on a team can be difficult. We each had different class schedules on top of our own personal responsibilities, which made finding time every week to complete our assignments difficult. We utilized evenings when we had the chance, and my phone was constantly blowing up from our group chat. UIF’s online conferencing tool, BlueJeans, helped when all four of us couldn’t be in the same place at once.
One project we had to complete was taking an inventory of entrepreneurship on our campus utilizing a worksheet known as the Landscape Canvas. As a team, we came up with a list of stakeholders at Menlo College who we thought would be most knowledgeable on the topic of entrepreneurship at our school and developed “how might we…” statements to think creatively about opportunities. After completing our interviews, we realized as a team that we barely had any information collected on our canvas because Menlo College’s current focus on entrepreneurship was limited. These findings encouraged my group and me to strive for change on our campus because we knew we were the ones who could expand entrepreneurship at our school; and being recognized as Fellows added extra motivation to see our projects happen.
This program acted as another class, and at an accelerated rate, made our weekly assignments crucial to complete. Time management played a huge role in our experience because if we missed an assignment, we would have fallen behind very fast. The UIF educators kept a spreadsheet on what assignments each school had completed–it was nerve wracking to see many names highlighted in red, meaning they were so far behind, they were no longer in the program. We motivated each other to stay on top of our work and finish our training strong.
Our ambition and optimism throughout the UIF training led us to being launched on February 20, 2017, as official University Innovation Fellows. We were so happy to have completed most of the hard work in being launched, but the real work had not even begun yet to change the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem on Menlo College’s campus.
However, our plans as change agents had to wait because we got to celebrate our accomplishments at the UIF Silicon Valley Meetup in California. We spent a day at Google, a day and half at Stanford University’s d.school as well as a morning at Microsoft–needless to say, it was a three-day whirlwind of everything design thinking and innovation! I have never experienced anything quite like the UIF meetup. In a little over 72 hours, I met people from around the world, made best friends for life and was utterly inspired by each ignite presentation. Ignite presentations were given by the Meetup leaders who are experienced Fellows in the program called the FABs (for being Fabulous Fellows). In addition to sharing their own creative experiences, we got to hear from special speakers, like Daniel Seddiqui, who is a Bay Area native, known for completing 50 jobs in 50 states. We also heard first-hand from executives at both Google and Microsoft.
The day we spent at Google HQs was filled with “Googley” activities and speaker presentations. We got to hear from C-suite level employees on the specifics of working at Google and had the ability to ask them questions. One of my favorite activities of the day was a rock, paper, scissors competition. Now, this was no an ordinary rock, paper, scissors game. This competition started with every fellow in the room turning to someone next to them, shaking their hand, then playing. Whoever lost the rock, paper, scissors battle instantly became the winner’s biggest fan. Each time someone won, you would continue to follow the winner, chanting their name until there were only two players left — who got on top of the tables in the conference room — and played the final battle. The point of this activity was to support other people because outcomes will be more creative if we collaborate and support each other.
During our lunch break, we were given the opportunity to explore the Google Garage. Upon entering the garage, you are automatically overcome with creative energy being surrounded by everything and anything you would want in an innovation center. From watching an employee code on a 3-D printer to playing with their rolling white boards and foam cubes to walking into a hidden sewing room, it is no wonder Google Glass was invented in this space!
We played countless design thinking activities with our Meetup groups. The Menlo College cohort was in one of the best groups, The Power Rangers! Each group was made up of Fellows from all over the world; whether it was Oregon, Pennsylvania, Australia, India, or Uruguay, I got to meet so many different people and hear about what they were doing on their campuses.
For example, for the activities, I broke away from my cohort to make new connections. I will never forget the connection I made with the Australian Leadership Circle, representing University of Technology Sydney. I got to work with the Australian cohort on various occasions and enjoyed an almost instantaneous friendship with them.
Since the SVM, I have stayed in touch with my new Australian friends and was able to visit them down under this past December! This is just one example of how amazing the community bond is with UIF.
In addition to adding new friends I made on social media, I am constantly in communication with the UIF community through a closed Facebook group made just for Fellows. On this Facebook group, I receive updates on changes happening at other UIF colleges and universities, read shared articles as well as additional UIF events or regional meetups happening near me.
My favorite part of this forum is how open and supportive every Fellow is; for example, you can post about your accomplishments or your hardships and seek advice from the directors and other fellows who may have gone through a similar situation and know how to help. It has been one of my favorite resources since launching because I get to not only share about our amazing accomplishments as change makers at Menlo College, I get daily wisdom from members of the group that make me so excited to keep pursuing change.
As a culmination of all our hard work, we were finally recognized as Fellows at our school through a special pinning ceremony in March, post-meetup. The Menlo College president, chair of the Board of Trustees, faculty sponsors and our families were all present to witness our special ceremony that officially inducted us as University Innovation Fellows for Menlo College. Our faculty sponsor gave us special gifts from the UIF program and pinned us, and each of my team members talked about our experience and our plans for changing on our campus.
One of the biggest takeaways from the Meetup was a phrase that we were continuously reminded of, “do epic shit, get epic shit done.” Through UIF, I was immersed in a world of creative thinking that has changed my thought process. I see myself as an entrepreneur and innovator.
Even through our online UIF training ended, we eagerly look forward to taking the next steps to change the ecosystem at Menlo College. There has been a dichotomy between us being the first UIF Leadership Circle at our school because we get to pursue initial change, but have no advice or guidance from experienced Fellows before us. I am looking forward to helping the next cohort of Fellows, since my team and I will have ideas about how to advise them given the learning curve we experienced. In addition, I have been able to take what I have learned and implement design thinking in other organizations I am involved in, too!
My team and I have several plans to accomplish for Menlo College; but our most important goal was to create an innovation center on campus. As the first project we have started as Fellows, we have taken major strides to achieve this goal; I am extremely excited to say our small idea has turned into a reality as we are currently seeing our plans through for the first ever innovative space at Menlo College!
One of the biggest issues we identified throughout our UIF training was lack of space on campus for students. After hearing about the various innovation centers other fellows had at their schools, we knew this would be key in adding to our entrepreneurship ecosystem at Menlo College. Since Menlo is a small college, we only have two main areas for students: the student union and library. By developing an additional space on campus dedicated to innovation, students will have a place for prototyping, group work, developing their own business ideas as well as a creative area for us fellows to host events too! We even has specific classes looking to use our new space; for example, Menlo College offers a special topics course in Design Thinking! I am currently in this class and our professor is testing the space. As student and a Fellow, it has been a fabulous experience seeing how our center might be put to use, i.e. getting up and moving for activities instead of staying at the tables to stimulate creative thinking.
Back in August 2017, we organized our first work day, to help build out our Innovation Center. With the help of excited students, we set up our furniture, put together z-rack white boards as well as other fun items to have in our space like moveable carts which will be supplied with endless sharpies, Post-It notes, Expo markers and more materials to prototype with! After having a soft-launch at the beginning of the fall semester, we look forward to opening this space up to Menlo College students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
Most recently, Menlo College launched eight new fellows for Spring 2018. I have loved being able to mentor my peers through their own UIF journey based on my experience as a past fellow and watch them grow as individuals. It was very rewarding to see how our second cohort handled the various challenges and tasks thrown at them as well as the brilliant ideas they have come forth with since being launched as Fellows, especially when it comes to changes in our curriculum! I was also able to form new friendships with first and second year students in our second cohort whom I would not have known outside of this program. Based on my leadership throughout their training, they like to joke and call me their “UIF mom,” which I’m honored to be called! Their excitement as changemakers has evoked an innovation fever across our campus and I can’t wait to see their ideas be implemented.
For now, we will continue to think big and think bigger as University Innovation Fellows.