For graduate student Clinton Aboagye, participating in Illinois State University’s Innovation Consulting Community (ICC) program was “a really rewarding journey.”
Joining other students from across campus who were interested in tackling a real-world problem, the actuarial science master’s student partnered with the local NAACP chapter as a client in order to explore the issue of economic justice. The student consulting team began by looking at some of the root causes of racial inequality in the United States. Following that initial research, they decided to focus their attention on the issue of educational disparities in K-12 classrooms in the Bloomington-Normal area.
“I hope our voices help in the fight to eradicate these issues,” said Aboagye, who developed an interest in economic justice after coming to the United States from Ghana in 2020 and hearing firsthand about views on systemic racism in this country.
Speaking about the personal benefits participants receive from ICC projects, he continued, “The value of projects like these for students cannot be overstated. It brings a wealth of experience one’s way. You get the chance to work on a real-life problem for clients who feel your input is important. You learn how to work in a group, how to best synthesize ideas so everyone feels involved and you gain valuable experience to talk about when interviewing for jobs.”
Gabriel Carrillo, who served as a mentor for the economic justice project, also spoke highly of ICC, describing it as a “phenomenal program.”
The mentor continued, “Students are given an opportunity – completely extracurricular – to spend time researching real-world problems for a real-world client. The projects are not simulations, which have their place but cannot replace real projects. Real projects experience unforeseen challenges and impediments, which are so important to the learning and maturing process for these students.”
In a joint statement, local NAACP chapter president Linda Foster and vice president Dr. Carla Campbell-Jackson described their organization’s partnership with the ISU consulting team as “extremely valuable” and “truly a win-win.”
“The students were extremely engaged, enthused and motivated,” they continued. “Their business acumen allowed them to explore the disparities associated within the education realm of our community … this topic was critically important, especially as COVID-19 exposed disparities that have long plagued the African-American community. The project makes the correlation with education, health and wealth. All of those factors are intricately linked, so we were excited to partner with the students to develop options to minimize the education and wealth divide. The NAACP is accustomed to challenging disparities, and the ISU students provided data to justify our posture.”
Carrillo predicted this year’s project may “well evolve into a series of ICC projects over time” given the applicability, scale and importance of the topic.
The student consulting team began meeting virtually in fall 2020. Following months of research, they presented their findings in early April about how inequalities in educational opportunities create a groundwork for economic disadvantages that can last a life time. They also offered practical suggestions for solving educational disparities within the local community.
“In school, we learn that education is important, but we don’t learn about how people’s access to education differs and the implications that entails. Equity in education impacts income and wealth in the future. These are life-changing topics,” observed team member Megan Lowe, an ISU freshman studying sociology and political science whose goal is to become a civil rights lawyer.
Lowe also described how she enjoyed the way the ICC program gave herself and her teammates the freedom to decide how to approach the subject matter. She admitted that tackling a project that did not have strict parameters, such as what she typically encounters in classroom settings, was “scary at first” and admitted she was “worried about messing up.’”
“It’s hard not to have specific directions,” she continued, “but the ICC does a great job of providing mentors to fill this gap. This challenge has pushed me to expand my comfort zone and has let me fall down before helping me get back up.”
Fellow team member Josiah McKinnie agreed that the ICC program offers a strong support system for the learning process.
“The mentors and supervisors have done a great job with this program,” he said.
The 2021 graduating senior who majored in business management also spoke highly of the ICC program’s interdisciplinary approach to solving real-world problems. As he observed, bringing together students from different majors allows them “to learn from different backgrounds and use their skills for the team’s benefit.”
This particular consulting team displayed a high level of diversity in its makeup, a trait that Carrillo described as “so very apropos” to the topic it researched.
“(The students) are from the US, and outside of the US,” the mentor observed. “There are young men and women; there are students studying sociology, management, statistics and actuarial science; and there are both grad and undergrad students on the team. I admire how they come together from all these different points of view, contributing their time and talent on top of their classes and, in some cases, jobs. They work well together. They are respectful and inclusive, as well as coachable.”
Fostering an interdisciplinary approach is an important component of the ICC program because it more closely resembles what students will encounter post-college and helps them to come to appreciate different viewpoints.
“Blending the teams across areas of study provides the opportunity to understand and appreciate how different disciplinary perspectives and contributions are so very powerful,” explained Carrillo. “This exactly emulates a key understanding which they will need to have to be successful post-graduation; diversity of thought, experience and skill is the power of diversity, writ large.”
In addition to providing a forum for practicing his professionalism and leadership skills, McKinnie discussed how the project opened his eyes to the economic cost of racial injustice in the United States and helped him to learn about solutions that will lead to “a more unified and efficient future.”
“This program has given me more opportunities than I could imagine,” he said. “I have a lot more connections, and these connections put me in a position to be successful. I would not be where I am right now if it wasn’t for this program.”
Lowe added, “Working with a real world client is exciting because we know that our work has actual implications for the community.”
The freshmen then concluded that given the diverse array of project topics spotlighted each year by the ICC program “anyone who is interested in enriching their education” could find something to “complement their interests and area(s) of study.” She then encouraged those who do get involved in the program to “be prepared to work hard, be professional and dependable and make a difference in their community.”
If you are interested in supporting the ISU Innovation Consulting Community, click here (giving.illinoisstate.edu/fund/innovation-consulting-community-fund/).