Ben Alemu: Young, Restless and Unafraid to Fail – UCSD’s Impact Will Be Student Driven

(Arianna Gorman / The Triton)

When you think of UC San Diego, what is the first thought that comes to mind?

For such a young university and community ecosystem only 57 years old, UC San Diego has had a nearly unprecedented ascent in the world of academia. UCSD is being compared globally to universities three to four centuries older, yet is still considered by numerous outlets one of the top 20 universities in the world (such as the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities 2016) and by The Washington Monthly #1 in social impact in the nation.

I will make a bold claim: the next phase of UCSD’s impact will not be exclusively faculty driven, but will be student-driven, and will serve to spur UCSD to even greater achievement.

Student initiators are a vast and currently underutilized resource that can empower the La Jolla Mesa and America’s Finest City. We have a unique advantage – the population size of undergraduates at this research-focused university gives us fantastic scope and quality of dormant young leaders. They are restless and seeking causes to champion, with demonstrated commitment to impact fields from biotechnology to the high tech industry, social services and K-12 public education. Entrepreneurship is the art of creation: whether that is through activism, starting organizations, building projects or founding startup companies. Students are forming companies, starting nonprofits and making tangible and immediate impacts in all sorts of ways.

These are just a few of the projects students are currently working on:

  • Launching award-winning K-12 mentorship and research initiatives begun in San Diego and sparking student movements around the country (SENDforC).
  • Building software to bring online learning to 2.1 million learners of an underserved offline world (Learning Equality).
  • Building renewable algae biofuel reactors for Cognitive Science senior theses (Phytasol).
  • Working with lawyers to anonymously identify and prosecute repeat sexual offenders (JDOE).
  • Founding bold hackathons, academic journals, independent newspapers and conferences (SD Hacks, Progress, The Triton).
  • Becoming the first university students to launch a rocket using an entirely 3D printed engine. (SEDS).

These students and many more are addressing the community directly, winning grants and national competitions, closing pilot partnerships, shipping products, developing intellectual property and educating numerous students on how to do the same. They are young, restless and unafraid to fail. They use all the tools at their disposal, including STEM, community development and each other.

The student entrepreneur community has begun to self-assemble and take ownership of its campus. UCSD has a uniquely promising student environment in which peers recognize and support other students avidly, rather than treating each other as as combative competitors. The UCSD student entrepreneurial community also hopes to host a public showcase in Spring quarter to demonstrate many of these students and projects.

Let us as a body of UCSD students, see how viable student projects (at scale) can benefit our local communities. If this is an approach students want to pursue, we need to satisfy the following objectives: 1) start a focused conversation in what that would entail 2) demonstrate interest 3) garner resources and guidance and 4) educate as many people as possible on how to do the same. Students must learn it is an option they can pursue, if they wish to do so.

How can you get involved? One option is to contact projects of interest directly to offer support or provide them feedback. You can donate your time to get in the conversation in how these services are developed, volunteer or create your own initiative. Advising, pro bono services and even a few words of encouragement can make a huge difference.

Contribute to the causes you care about and let’s tap into every resource available to make some magic happen, together. The brightest days of the region are yet to come.

Ben Alemu is an undergraduate student at UC: San Diego and the Chief Operating Officer at SENDforC.