What It Takes to Initiate Change in College

Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 26.5% of Americans volunteered at least once over the course of one year. For young adults in their early 20s, this statistic drops to 18.9%. This means an average college lecture hall of 150 students will contain only 28 people who volunteer. In a society that reveres outspoken upstanders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, why is volunteering not a cultural norm?

Einstein said it best: e = mc2. I know. What does an equation relating mass and energy have to do with encouraging people to become upstanders in their communities?

It's simple: Effector = mindfulness x compassion x community. A person who is aware of societal issues, moved by the consequences of these problems, and surrounded by other empowered individuals will then have every tool necessary to begin taking action.

Step One: Encourage mindfulness through education.

Acknowledging the harmful effects of a changing climate, the underrepresentation of minority groups in the tech industry, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS allows us to begin brainstorming ideas on how to solve these important issues. But don't take my word for it. In fact, don't take any one person's word for it. Every article has a motive, and parsing through various viewpoints is crucial to promoting awareness. Today, everyone can access a massive source of endless information from the Internet. You could spend hours on cute corgi videos, or you could follow your favorite nonprofit organization or socially conscious companies online, and recommend these sources of news to your friends and family.

Step Two: Shift perspectives in order to strengthen the motivation to initiate change.

This step requires facilitating the transition from admitting, "This is a terrible situation," to declaring, "I want to try to improve it." Awareness of the issue cannot create change unless you have the passion to act upon it. Unlike increasing awareness, no magic formula can make someone care about an issue. For the average person, incentivizing volunteer work comes down to creating a personal connection with the issue.

One way to do this is to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes. My favorite example is to reverse the "starving child in Africa" thought process. When viewing an image of an orphaned or forlorn child from another country, imagine if that child were your sibling or your neighbor. Recognizing the poor as human beings and not just aid recipients begins the process of "helping up" instead of "helping out." See the potential, not despair, and your thoughts will naturally shift from wanting to temporarily relieve their hunger by donating a meal, to wanting to educate and empower a new generation to sustainably support their own lives.

This changed view is why organizations such as Free The Children have managed to revolutionize the way youth view foreign aid. After winning Microsoft's YouthSpark Challenge for Change, I had the privilege of traveling to Kenya to volunteer and learn about social entrepreneurship through Free The Children. The other passionate volunteers with whom I shared the experience showed me firsthand how a changed perspective motivated them to both volunteer abroad and initiate projects within their own communities. Having strong communities of upstanders in their schools also helped, which brings me to my final point.

Step Three: Take advantage of existing communities.

"The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader," as Derek Sivers stated in his TED talk, "How to Start a Movement." Whether you wish to be the leader or a follower, joining a community is essential to shifting from passion about a problem to execution of a solution. My nonprofit organization, Bystanders to Upstanders, references the bystander effect: how expecting someone else to intervene prevents people from taking action. While the solution to this problem lies in increasing self-empowerment and admitting that inaction is also an action, an alternative approach is to identify other empowered individuals and follow their examples, whether you initiate the movement or become involved with an existing community.

What does it take to initiate change? Awareness, passion, and community. Of course, every situation is unique, and a variety of factors regularly affect people's desires to become active in their community. As a winner of last year's competition, I was given access to the resources I needed to establish my own nonprofit organization and promote volunteer work. If you believe that you have the next big idea on how to change the world, apply for this year's Microsoft YouthSpark Challenge for Change.

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