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UI geographer Rajagopal plans to make University a leader in social entrepreneurship

  Raj Raj
University of Iowa geography professor Raj Rajagopal's India Winterim program offers courses in various Indian towns to more than 100 UI students. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

When University of Iowa geography professor Raj Rajagopal set out to find a model for how he wants the public to view the University's three-year-old India Winterim Session—a three-week study abroad program—he didn't have to look very far.

Nestled in the heart of the UI campus sits the Iowa Writers' Workshop, a center of excellence considered by many to be the preeminent program of its kind in the world. Boasting a roster of former students and instructors that includes such major literary figures as Tennessee Williams, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Irving, the workshop is an institution that most organizations would like to emulate.

“The Writer's Workshop brings top writers to The University of Iowa; we take UI students and faculty to the top organizations around the world,” says Rajagopal.

Equaling the fame of the Iowa Writers' Workshop will be very difficult, but Rajagopal, strengthened by three years of the program's growth and guided by a vision, believes he will succeed. A look at plans for the 2009–10 India Winterim shows why.

This year, between Dec. 27 and Jan. 16, the program offers 11 courses to some 105 students who will tour, learn and study about successful organizations and processes in a variety of Indian towns. The three-week study abroad program is administered through the UI Office for Study Abroad, UI International Programs, the UI Division of Continuing Education and the Department of Geography. The course titles range from Safe and Sustainable Water Resources to Maternal and Infant Health in South India. The syllabus for a course titled BplansForHumanity Models for Social Entrepreneurship and Microfinance in Rural and Urban India indicates that the expectations for the course and its students are very ambitious.

Social entrepreneurship course instructor David Burgess, a lecturer in the UI Tippie College of Business for the past 10 years, writes, "In India, we will be surrounded by genius: the single mother and entrepreneur who runs a successful business she started with a $40 micro-loan, and is now a leader in her community; the child who is now a 'topper' in his class at school after being rescued from bonded labor; and the program administrators at our partner organizations who have designed mobile Internet centers to supplement education and catalyze entrepreneurship in remote villages.

"Our goal is to observe, listen, and learn, and in so doing, serve them and their mission by sharing the time, knowledge, and support they will give us to impact many more lives in India, Iowa, and beyond," Burgess writes.

Rajagopal, who arranges the courses one at a time through face-to-face meetings with leaders of various Indian volunteers organizations, says that their in-kind contributions, including providing free lectures to UI students, has been tremendously valuable to the program. Fourteen professors teach the India Winterim Session courses. But volunteer organizations, of which there are about one for every 1,000 people in India, guide the course format with their areas of expertise.

"In India, the volunteer organizations don't charge us any money for their time. This is significant because it would amount to about 30 percent of the program's costs if we had to pay," Rajagopal says. "When I ask them about it, they say that they are building long-term collaborations and relationships."

The program fee of about $4,000 per student includes tuition, airfare, ground transportation, banquets, conference facilities, rooms, three semester hours of credit, and more. What students can take away from the course, Rajagopal says, is an understanding of different peoples and societies that can give students the ability to make a significant impact in global contexts.

"Through our Winterim courses, I can empower students to change society and the world," he says. "I am finding doctors who are giving up practices to begin start-ups in health care clinics and hospitals. And, in the area of finance, you don't need a business degree to practice microfinance, but you can't be just anyone; you must gather knowledge and get information on the ground."

"I am certain that we can structure, organize, and put in place one of the best India programs within the U.S. higher education system."

—Raj Rajagopal
professor of geography


Rajagopal has found that instructors and students in the program are anxious to learn. "Every student and professor wants to jump in and try something new by interacting with the excellent people we find around the world," he says.

One of India Winterim's more notable alumni is Alexandra Keenan of Des Moines, who worked in the field of disease prevention and screening.

In October, Glamour magazine listed Keenan as one of the "Top 10 College Women" on U.S. college campuses. Keenan plans to graduate with three bachelor's degrees, one in biomedical engineering from the College of Engineering, one in biochemistry from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), and one in international studies, administered by International Programs through CLAS.

In the future, Rajagopal plans to use the long-term relationships he has established internationally with people and voluntary organizations to help build and expand the UI program in social entrepreneurship within Iowa and, perhaps, around the world.

"We are already at the top, compared to any other U.S. university, in terms of student participation in our India Winterim Session. If we continue along the same path for one or two more years, I am certain that we can structure, organize, and put in place one of the best India programs within the U.S. higher education system," he says.

"We want to capture the best practices of social entrepreneurship and bring them back to Iowa. This is how we will make The University of Iowa the leader in social entrepreneurship," he says. "Within a few years, with the assistance of our faculty in African American and Latin American studies programs, we hope to expand Winterim efforts to include Africa and South America."

by Gary Galluzzo

Office of University Relations. Copyright The University of Iowa 2006. All rights reserved.