Setting Aside My Hero Complex

In high school, I went on a two-week “voluntourism” trip to Ghana with American and European high school students. We spent our mornings preparing a classroom for use and our afternoons hanging out with kids in the village. One week into the trip, I realized that my fellow volunteers and I were so bad at plastering and painting, our host organization had hired Ghanaian laborers to fix our mistakes. My mind filled with questions: How many more classrooms could have been built if the money spent on our travel had been invested directly in the project? How many more children would have had nice places to learn? I set out to find a better way to make a difference. When I returned home, I launched Anidaso, a project to fund scholarships for children in my host village through the sale of bags made by an artist in Ghana.

A few years later, I enrolled at Arizona State University (ASU). There, I became student director of ASU’s Changemaker Central, an innovative initiative designed to inspire a culture of student-driven social change. Changemaker Central provides programs and services to help students achieve social impact in addition to running four on-campus coworking spaces. Through my position, I worked with other ASU students to ideate and implement strategies for positive change. With access to the seemingly unlimited knowledge of the institution and the backing of university resources, these hardworking students usually reached their goals. However, at the end of the day, very few could measure their impact.

I concluded my time at Changemaker Central frustrated, but also inspired. I wanted to figure out why promising students and their ventures often failed to yield measurable impact. As I investigated how universities prepare students to become agents of change, I found two distinct realms of work focused on social impact: community or civic engagement and social entrepreneurship. In the community engagement realm, students are encouraged to serve while learning alongside community agencies and leaders. In the social entrepreneurship realm, students are encouraged to create innovative, sustainable solutions.

While these methodologies seem complementary, I have learned that practitioners of each approach seem to focus on one another’s weaknesses rather than leveraging one another’s strengths. Community engagement stakeholders may ask: If students don’t spend time in the community, how do they know their ideas will work? When their ideas fail, who will be there to pick up the pieces? Those invested in social entrepreneurship may respond: Civic engagement practitioners have been in the community for years, and their work is still needed. If they walked away today, would those they serve be back where they started?

My college education prepared me to see this problem—and ultimately prepared me to address it. As director of Changemaker Central, I participated in various working groups, all building an ecosystem for students to create positive social change. In these working groups, stakeholders listened to and incorporated each other’s perspectives into their work. This experience showed me just how complex social change truly is; it pushed me to see beyond simple solutions, to set aside my hero complex, and to persevere relentlessly to achieve impact.

Changemaker Central taught me that it was important to listen to community needs. Reflecting on Anidaso, I started to realize that changing someone’s life isn’t always as easy as paying for scholarships. I regretted that I had done little research prior to establishing the project and did not have partners on the ground. I returned to Ghana to evaluate the project’s impact and found that scholarship recipients needed more than financial support to ensure their bright futures. With the help of Ashesi University, an innovative institution near the village, I recruited three high-achieving university students to serve as mentors. In one year, these mentors have achieved more with scholarship recipients than I could alone in three. And we aren’t done innovating. Now with an international team of eight, we are rebranding, scaling sales, and working to fund additional community service projects. While Anidaso exists because of a moment of clarity I had at age sixteen, our growth, impact, and future potential can be credited to what I learned at Arizona State University.


Kaitlyn Fitzgerald is a business development analyst at Zero Mass Water and a 2015 graduate of Arizona State University.

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