GESI wins Ashoka award for innovation in higher education

February 26, 2016

Ashoka U fosters social innovation in higher edThe Buffett Institute’s Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI) study abroad program has won an award from Ashoka U for its innovative educational approach to social entrepreneurship in higher education.

Patrick Eccles, associate director of global engagement programs at the Buffett Institute, accepted the Ashoka U-Cordes Innovation Award on behalf of GESI on February 26, 2016. In addition to accepting the award, Eccles also gave a short, TED-style talk about the program. The award and talk were presented during the Ashoka U Exchange in New Orleans to an audience of more than 700 leaders in social innovation in higher education. 

“[The Ashoka U-Cordes Innovation Award] casts a broad net and identifies the best and brightest innovations that are really affecting the ability of our students to be change makers,” says Ron Cordes, co-founder of the Cordes Foundation, in a press release.

GESI is a credit-bearing program that combines rigorous academic training and hands-on international fieldwork. Teams of GESI students partner with local grassroots organizations in six countries to help design and implement community-based development projects. One of the program’s core values is a commitment to diversity and inclusion: In 2015, over 70% of GESI students were from underrepresented groups.

Over the past six years, the Ashoka-U Cordes Innovation Awards have recognized 35 top educational approaches in social entrepreneurship within higher education. Innovation Awardees are selected based on three criteria:

  • Innovation – Does this model address a clear challenge or opportunity for advancing an entrepreneurial or socially impactful mindset for the university context?
  • Replication – Can the model be easily adapted without losing quality and impact?
  • Maturity – Is there evidence of refinement and iteration of the model over time? 

GESI’s commitment to global partnerships and community-based learning has helped it stand out from other study-abroad programs.

GESI's on the ground partners operate all over the world

“We place a high value on the role of our local partners as co-educators,” Eccles says. “Several years ago, we were seeing that the traditional power dynamics of the classroom were sometimes following us into the field; students were too often deferring to faculty as the experts rather than the local people they lived and worked with. So instead students work directly with in-country partners who supervise and advise their work and guide their overall integration with the community. “

Forging effective campus partnerships has also been a key to GESI’s success.

GESI's commitment to diversity and inclusion

“Our program has become strongly identified with shared efforts at Northwestern to make our campus and programs more inclusive,” Eccles says. “We’ve collaborated with students, staff, faculty, donors, and other offices on campus to organize support for scholarships, intentional recruitment practices, and a peer education model that examines how identity, power and privilege shape our experiences at home and abroad."

This is GESI’s second award in less than a year. In March 2015, GESI received the Excellence in Diversifying International Education (EDIE) award from the Diversity Abroad Network. GESI is the second Northwestern-based program to receive the Ashoka U-Cordes Innovation Award. Design for America, which was founded by faculty and students at the McCormick School of Engineering, won the award in 2013.

For more information on the GESI program, visit

Development, Human Rights, Undergraduate Students