Students Helping Students

When they act as mentors and community resources, business students learn empathetic leadership.

Students Helping Students

Here, three schools detail the programs they’ve put in place that send their students out into the community to provide assistance and offer leadership. Their activities, which were among the many submitted to AACSB’s 2018 Innovations That Inspire initiative, have one important element in common—outreach to younger students who might be the next leaders to change the world.


As part of Vienna University’s Volunteering@WU program, university students enjoy leisure time activities with disadvantaged students from the local community.

An MBA student from the S.P. Institute of Management and Research
mentors a Sitara studens at her home.

“Business education must teach students not just how to make a living, but how to live life,” says Deepa Krishnan, adjunct associate professor at the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR) in Mumbai, India. She is also head of the Abhyudaya Project, a yearlong mandatory course in which first-year MBA students mentor children in nearby slums. The name Abhyudaya is drawn from a Sanskrit word that means “welfare and development of all.”

Krishan explains, “The leaders of tomorrow need empathy, courage, and the willingness to make a difference to the world. Traditional classroom-based teaching does not bring about the deep attitudinal impact we wish to create. Therefore, we have evolved a nonclassroom experiential pedagogy to create individuals who embody the values of courage and heart. The core of this pedagogy is direct experience of adversity.”

The Abhyudaya initiative launches in the beginning of the academic year, when MBA students are assigned as mentors to high-potential children who attend one of 70 participating schools. “Each child is called a Sitara, which means star,” says Krishnan.

The principals of each school nominate five potential Sitaras who are completing fifth grade. SPJIMR works with professional educators and NGO workers to interview and evaluate the students who might thrive within the Abhyudaya program. About 120 of them are chosen to become “pre-Sitaras,” and during their sixth-grade years, they participate in Sunday classes while educators observe their attendance and behavior patterns. At the end of the school year, between 45 and 60 students are selected from this group to become Sitaras.

Sitaras remain in the program from the seventh grade until they graduate and obtain employment. That might be after three or four years of college, which is the path most Sitaras take. The program currently has almost 400 Sitaras enrolled, including 220 in college and junior college. To offset expenses the participating families incur—such as the cost of public transportation to campus—the Abhyudaya program provides annual financial grants to Sitaras in the first four years. Abhyudaya’s program budget is about US$48,500, including money for grants and teaching.

While they are in the Abhyudaya program, Sitaras take part in a range of classroom and nonclassroom experiences that cover everything from sports to life skills to chess. They receive instruction from paid teaching staff, counselors, SPJIMR staff, and engineering students from the Sardar Patel Institute of Information Technology, which is located on the same campus.

Most critically, all Sitaras receive home-based mentoring from SPJIMR MBA students until they finish the tenth grade, while those who are interested can receive two more years of mentoring. Each Sitara is assigned to a first-year MBA student, who makes 12 two-hour visits to his or her Sitara during the school year.

To prepare these MBA students for their roles as mentors, SPJIMR delivers an orientation lecture about the Abhyudaya initiative, two lectures on the process of mentoring, and one lecture on ethnography. It also supplies a template that students use to guide them through writing their mentoring plans for their Sitaras.

A key part of the mentoring plan is the “success statement” in which the mentee identifies a long-term career, personal development, or interpersonal relationship goal. MBA students are encouraged to have the Sitaras think concretely about how they will achieve these goals. For instance, it’s not enough for a seventh-grader to say he or she wants to be a doctor, the template form explains. “Ask the Sitara to imagine what that is, help them to imagine it if required, and then define more realistic sub-goals for that—for example, things to be achieved by the time they complete schooling.” On the mentoring template, the MBA students also assess their Sitaras’ literacy and digital skills and describe the steps they will need to take to help their mentees reach certain milestones.

During their 12 visits to their mentees’ homes, the business students are expected to learn about their Sitaras’ families, as well as about more general conditions at the base of the pyramid. “Using ethnographic techniques, they observe and record the structure of a typical slum home, health and hygiene of the neighborhood, retail landscape, and financial profile of the slum,” says Krishnan.

After every visit, the MBA students submit reflection diaries. The students also are divided into 20 cohorts, each with its own faculty facilitator, and these cohorts meet six times a year to discuss their experiences. The facilitators guide the reflection and discussion sessions following an agenda supplied by Krishnan.

For instance, in one session, MBA students work together to summarize common features they have noticed among Sitara households, such as household size, furnishings, amenities, power sources, religious artifacts, and division of labor. Students also relate what they’ve observed about buying patterns, accessible retail stores, brand and vendor preferences, and methods of payment. In other exercises, business students create health profiles for their households and discuss business or government solutions that might address any problems. “By sharing this information with each other, they will form a richer picture of what life is like in an urban slum,” Krishnan explains.

In their reflection diaries and class discussions, some students relate the obstacles and frustrations they encounter during mentoring sessions. “Visiting slums during the monsoons is very challenging,” says Krishnan. “In addition, mindset and value system differences are tough to handle—for instance, gender inequality is stark, and the injustice is difficult to deal with, particularly because the students have no real authority to change anything. All they can do is try to influence through soft power.”

Students also can try to envision ways to improve the lives of their Sitara families. As part of the program, MBA students are divided into groups and tasked with conceptualizing business ideas that would work at the base of the pyramid. These ideas are evaluated by a panel of alumni, and those with strong potential are taken up for development. For example, says Krishnan, in 2017 the school followed a student’s recommendation to launch a crafts business that would provide livelihoods to the mothers of Sitaras.

“We wanted to find ways to keep the community closely tied to Abhyudaya, because the more we involve the parents, the better it is for our Sitaras,” says Krishnan. Abhyudaya Community Initiative crafts are now sold in five stores in Mumbai, and the women have earned Rs 150,000 (about $2,223) in six months. “This has given them a big boost,” says Krishnan.

At the end of the year, Krishnan collects anonymous feedback from the MBA student mentors, asking them questions such as whether the program has helped them develop empathy, appreciate what they have, and enhance their understanding of urban poverty. Most students respond positively, says Krishnan, which she views as evidence that the program has managed “to make a difference in the way our students think.” The school also conducts third-party surveys of the Sitaras and their parents, who report that the MBA students helped Sitaras strengthen their weak points and sharpen their strong points. Furthermore, she adds, in 2017, 84 percent of the Sitaras said that their mentors kept in touch with them after the academic year.

These connections continue even though, at the end of each school year, the MBA students formally hand their Sitaras over to the next crop of mentors through a process known as “Hastantaran,” which means “change of hands.” During the program, each Sitara will work with four or more mentors. “This allows the Sitaras to meet diverse people and learn different strengths and see different types of role models,” says Krishnan. “They also develop an important network of contacts for the future, when our MBA students become business leaders.”

The value of the Abhyudaya program has been recognized as a teaching innovation by the Graduate Management Admission Council, the World Education Summit, and the Indian Management Conclave. In addition, Abhyudaya recently won the Innovative Practices 2018 Award from the United Nations Global Compact Network India for its efforts in furthering the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

“Our vision at SPJIMR is to influence practice and promote value-based growth, and we believe Abhyudaya is a perfect example,” says Krishnan. “Through this program, MBA students evolve into empathetic leaders who truly understand what the real India is and how to make a difference in the world.”

Learn more about Abhyudaya.


Students from the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University meet with high school students at a nearby Navajo reservation to encourage them to pursue higher education.

Students from the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University
meet with high school students at a nearby Navajo reservation
to encourage them to pursue higher education.

Imbuing tomorrow’s leaders with a sense of social responsibility is a priority at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business in Logan. To that end, in fall 2017, the school launched its first Scholars Leadership Lab, a required course in the Huntsman Scholars honor program. The 53 students in the class, most of them first-semester freshmen, not only developed leadership traits of creative thinking, self-awareness, and collaboration, they also learned to be leaders in addressing needs in their own community.

“Rather than having students develop leadership skills for personal gain, we want them to think about leadership as a way to make a difference in the lives of others,” says Bret Crane, assistant professor of management.

Last fall, for example, Huntsman Scholars considered ways to encourage students at Whitehorse High School on the Navajo reservation in southern Utah to pursue higher education. The reservation is located in the poorest county in Utah, which is also the third-poorest in the United States, says Crane.

The ultimate goal was for students at the Huntsman School to hold an Opportunity Fair at Whitehorse High School. Teams of students worked together to create educational booths built around resources that would motivate the high school students to raise their aspirations, overcome obstacles to higher education, and understand how business knowledge could enrich their lives.

Before the fair, Huntsman students spent time in class learning about life for Native Americans. First, they listened to a presentation on culture and context given by Native American students at USU. Then, via Skype, they interviewed 20 Whitehorse students selected from a business course to learn about their unique challenges and interests.

Next, students began the process of creating their booths for the fair. Working in 13 teams of four students each, they used a design thinking approach of ideating, creating prototypes, and refining concepts. Student teams pitched their ideas to judges—three students from the campus Native American club, as well as professors responsible for the Huntsman Scholars program—who provided feedback. This entire process took place in just one class period. Then, using judge feedback as a guide, teams spent the next week creating their final booths.

Each booth was designed to give high school students a boost as they navigated the college application process. For instance, one team of USU students made plans to construct a small curtained room where they could conduct mock interviews with high school students.

Another team looked for ways to eliminate barriers for Native American students who wanted to apply to college. Each of the four students on the team reached out to three universities near the reservation, including some in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, asking them to waive application fees for Native Americans. While some schools, including Utah State, couldn’t waive fees up front, their administrators expressed a willingness to help Native American applicants in other ways.

“Some schools were incredibly unhelpful and told us the students would need to apply the ‘normal way,’” relates one of the students from the team. “But many took to the cause and fell in love with such a simple and meaningful idea helping to break cycles and barriers. One, Dixie State, gave us a personalized code for the Whitehorse High School students.”

The students on this team organized the pertinent information and created customized posters and fliers to display at their booth. The fliers provided step-by-step instructions for applying to each university, including information about deadlines, fee waivers, and tuition costs. The team used Canva, a free online graphic design tool website, to create the materials.

Late in the semester, the Huntsman students spent three days on a trip to the Navajo reservation, including eight hours on the bus ride each way. At the high school, they set up the Opportunity Fair, where they met with about 300 students from all grades. Throughout the fair, says Crane, “Our students engaged in impactful conversations with the high school students and encouraged them in meaningful ways.”

While Huntsman students were at the high school, they also met with Robert McPherson, a Navajo expert from USU, who described the differences between American and Native American cultures. After the Opportunity Fair, one USU student developed a website for the Whitehorse students that provided consolidated information about local colleges and identified simple steps for applying to college.

Upon returning home, Huntsman students spent the last class period reflecting on their experience at Whitehorse. In their written reflections, many students stressed that while the experience was humbling, it was also empowering, because it showed them that they could be leaders and make a difference in the lives of others.

“At the heart of that project is an empathy and concern for others and a determination to use leadership skills to solve problems,” one student wrote. “Sometimes classes in a university setting seem far removed from the ‘real world,’ but including the important step of empathy makes all the effort seem relevant. As I go forward in leadership, I will make sure that serving others is at the center of any ideas I come up with.”

Crane was pleased by the results of the first leadership lab. “Faculty and administrators at the high school complimented our students on their energy and professionalism and asked us to please come back,” he says. USU administrators plan to make a return trip this fall, having received a grant that will cover expenses.

In the spring semester, Huntsman Scholars had an opportunity to reach out to a different type of community in need when they worked with a nonprofit that serves refugees. “Students used the design thinking process to identify and develop donor strategies and improve outreach programs and online marketing programs,” says Crane. “As a result, the leaders of the nonprofit said that our students have become their best volunteers.”

Such experiences help business students develop greater skills in leadership and teamwork, says Crane. He adds, “What surprised us most is how much they bonded with one another. The deep connections this lab helped form will enhance their experience at USU and beyond.”


Students from the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University meet with high school students at a nearby Navajo reservation to encourage them to pursue higher education.

As part of Vienna University’s [email protected] program,
university students enjoy leisure time activities with
disadvantaged students from the local community.

At the Vienna University (WU) of Economics and Business in Austria, business students reach out to disadvantaged children in their region by signing up for the [email protected] program.

The program launched in 2010 as a simple “learning buddy program” called Lernen macht Schule, which means “learning makes school.” Today, it has grown to encompass a music program; summer camps that focus on music, sports, and healthy nutrition; and German language courses for refugees. The initial program was created as a joint venture among the university; Caritas Vienna, a branch of an international Catholic charitable organization; and the REWE Group, a retail food group.

“Our twofold goal is to help children in need, as well as to offer university students a more holistic, service learning educational experience,” says Edith Littich, vice rector for academic programs and student affairs. She oversees the program with the aid of one full-time and two part-time employees. “Students acquire leadership skills by working with children with diverse ethnic and social backgrounds. They learn to take responsibility for their own actions, as well as for their fellow human beings, and to actively participate in and shape society. Students deal with social issues and learn to treat others respectfully and authentically.”

More than 120 WU students sign up every year to act as learning buddies for about 240 children, adolescents, and young adults who have been identified by Caritas Vienna. Mentors and mentees are matched by factors such as age, gender, location, and academic needs. They meet for a few hours once a week in one of 15 facilities run by the aid organization, and they participate in a variety of activities. Not only do they study for upcoming school exams, especially in languages and math, but they also spend leisure time at events organized by the [email protected] team, such as soccer matches, ice hockey games, museum trips, climbing sessions, and workshops. In addition, WU students can become “music buddies” who work with the children as they prepare to perform in a choir.

WU students apply to participate in the program for at least one semester, since that much time is required to build a relationship, says Littich. Some university students sign on for two semesters—and in some rare instances, they stay with the program for years.

Each relationship between younger and older students is different, Littich notes. “Some mentors assume more of a tutoring role, while others develop life-lasting friendships. The intent of the program is to give students the freedom to build a connection in a way that makes them most comfortable.”

Before they set out on their first volunteering appointments, university students spend about 12 hours in preparatory courses and training seminars, where they learn about social responsibility, ethical behavior, cultural differences and diversity, cooperative negotiation, conflict management, and communication. In addition, throughout the semester, WU students receive coaching and supervision both individually and in group settings. Training and coaching sessions are overseen by certified supervisors, language trainers, and external experts with consulting backgrounds. At the end of the semester, WU students attend a two-hour reflection session during which they summarize the effects of the program on their mentees and themselves.

The program is supported by a range of corporate and civil sector organizations, including Unilever Austria, Almdudler, Stadt Wien Marketing, Umdasch Foundation, Caverion Österreich, Sofitel, Ströck, and Greenyard Fresh Spain.

“The companies like to create strong, social employer brands and engage students in ‘buddy evenings’ at their own facilities,” says Littich. “They step in wherever resources are needed, showing the heartfelt commitment to this cause and the impact the project has on the partners themselves. This motivation to go the extra mile has made this program a grand success with no expiration date in sight.”

To date, more than 1,000 WU students have signed up for [email protected] Those who do participate have the chance to earn a social skills certificate; they also can count their time as a free elective.

Littich believes the volunteering program offers great benefits to all involved. For instance, among the younger students who have participated in the buddy program, “there are many examples of mentees finishing their school education,” she says. “One of the first students from the program, who participated in 2010, just enrolled in the University of Vienna in 2017. He is studying geography and statistics.”

The benefits to university students are even more dramatic. One obvious advantage is the chance to meet and network with corporate partners at sponsored events. Just as important, students who participate in [email protected] gain some of the skills most prized by employers, notes Littich. In 2017, the university conducted a survey of employers and found the most sought-after skill was “the ability to look beyond one’s own horizons,” she says. Employers also seek social competence and engagement outside of the classroom. She says, “All of these characteristics are combined in this initiative.”

Finally, students who become volunteers develop as human beings, says Littich. “By working with children and adolescents from other cultures and social classes, students come to reflect on their own culturally influenced patterns of thinking and behavior. They become responsible, caring leaders.”

Visit [email protected] for more information (in German) about the program.