On Voracious Curiosity: Q&A with Ben Nelson, CEO of Minerva Project

Two years ago, I had the privilege of attending TEDGlobal in Edinburgh, Scotland , which focused on the theme of "Radical Openness." Following a number of talks around the future of childhood and adult education, a few of us spent time discussing evolving educational models, technology and what determines effectiveness. Since the conference, I've spent a good amount of time meeting with innovators in the space to talk about what's to come.

Amid the ongoing discussion, Minerva Project and Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) are capturing much attention. Led by CEO Ben Nelson, Minerva's "reinvented university experience" is intentionally designed to provide outstanding liberal arts and sciences to some of the world's most intellectually curious and motivated young minds. Technology, an experienced faculty and experiential learning all play critical roles in delivering Minerva's globally-focused educational model, which is intentionally designed to prepare students for careers in global leadership and innovation.

Nelson had a reformative vision of the university model during his own time as an undergraduate at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania . Now, he's bringing this vision to life with Minerva's inaugural class joining this fall. Recently, I had the chance to connect with Nelson to find out more about the students joining, his inspirations and ways for others to get involved in advancing Minerva's mission.

Laura Cococcia: This fall, Minerva will matriculate its founding class of students. Can you offer some insight into the group, its makeup and perhaps some interesting accomplishments of the students?

Ben Nelson: We've been extremely fortunate to have a very diverse set of students joining in the fall. This is partially due to the fact that our admissions approach reflects a very different way of approaching the university admissions model.

From a statistical perspective, our students show a compelling cross-section and while not designed to be reflective of the world population, shows some clear differences among traditional universities. More than 60% are women. Students will be joining from 13 different countries. 20% of the students are Americans. 80% are international students. Our approach is blind, with no preference given to race, gender or country of origin. We set an 'absolute bar' that applicants need to reach or exceed in order to be considered and accepted, which is very different with the concept of scarce space adopted by many early decision or traditional admission models. Still, our acceptance rate is 2.8%, almost twice as selective as some of the Ivy League universities in the U.S.

The commonality among all applicants is their voracious intellectual curiosity. Yet, their curiosities and ambitions all manifest in different ways. For example, we have a young woman joining from Africa who is outspoken in political and social policy in her country--ultimately expressive beyond her years. We're excited to welcome a competitive gymnast as well as a girl in India who started her own jewelry company. These are just a few illustrations and we'll share more student profiles as we're able.

LC: Who would you consider a few of the most influential educators in your life, whether teachers or mentors?

BN: Minerva came from my efforts trying to change what I thought could be improved during my undergraduate studies. I was fortunate to have great mentors along the way who helped enhance my perspective of learning and life. And, there were encouraging individuals who saw my reform attempts and encouraged me to use them to write the blueprint for Minerva.

There are so many who have influenced me. Bill Whitney, my freshman economics professor at Wharton, helped me truly understand that what got me grades in college is not the same as who I am as an individual. Will Harris, my professor of political science, based our entire grade on the answer to one question related to the interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. When we were given the question, we had 24 hours to compose our answer. Through this, he taught me that what mattered most were the interconnections drawn and evidence of the way one thinks. Authorship can always be seen in a paper.

I'm grateful to David Slavitt who taught us how to write and Paul Rosen in psychology who regularly reminded us to have perspective on our experience. He always encouraged us take advantage of the time we were in college, noting that we were in a fortunate small percentage.

LC: Clearly you're passionate about education - what do you do to continue your own professional education?

BN: My current self-education is focused on creating the Minerva curriculum. The way we deliver it will be 100% of its success. For example, when the deans from Minerva put together a course, I intentionally debate them so that we actively and regularly engage in conversation that works toward the design and delivery of the best possible curriculum. It's in real-world discussions that I learn the best.

This active approach is how I challenge myself to continuously learn. I remember a time when I was traveling to Chile and wanted to learn about Chilean wine. I planned this trip well and designed it to discover as much as I could. I drove myself around, tasted wines, kept notes and talked to local people. I then traveled to Argentina, wanted to do something similar, but had no time to plan the trip. A friend recommended a sommelier that took me to various wineries and gave me contextual and historical overviews.

When I think about the 'better' education of the two for me, it was in Chile. I know that when I want to learn, I need to be active in designing my experience, ask questions and truly engage.

LC: Are there ways that people who are similarly passionate can get involved with Minerva?

BN: People can sponsor or mentor a student. It's important to remember that these are incredible, brave individuals who are making a unique and different choice about their education versus other options. You can also nominate student -- almost everyone knows a Minerva student through their networks. Finally, we offer students a series of co-curricular activities that focus on how the world works, giving students the chance to see and participate first-hand. We encourage people to find out about when we'll be in various communities as we'd welcome your participation.

Learn more about Minerva Project and Minerva Schools at KGI here.