Senior Tish Scolnik designed a wheelchair that doubles as a portable office, making it possible for the disabled in Tanzania to become entrepreneurs.
“We wanted it to look like a legitimate business,” says Scolnik, who designed the chair with a collapsible desk that doubles as a sign, drawers under the seat for storage, and a colorful umbrella for shelter. Now, the disabled are selling vegetables, repairing shoes, and fixing electronics — right from the seat of their wheelchairs.
“We demand a lot of our students, because we know they have so much capacity and can contribute so much,” says Sally Susnowitz, director of MIT’s Public Service Center. “Students understand this and get excited about doing amazing things.”
Each year, thousands of MIT students participate in service projects to gain leadership skills and to better serve the world. Recently, students established an entrepreneurship competition in the Philippines to reinvigorate that country’s economy; some are working to spur regrowth of the coral reefs; while others are developing medical devices, like the telerobotic lung biopsy tool requested by doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a smart pillbox for use in treating tuberculosis in India.
“I’ve been on the faculty for 35 years, and have been delighted that this generation of students wants to make the world a better place,” says Kim Vandiver, director of MIT’s Edgerton Center which runs D-Lab, a series of service learning classes that focus on international development. “The news is filled with doomsday scenarios, such as loss of the ice caps and the rise in sea level. We see reports of tsunamis and earthquakes. MIT students aren’t going to just roll over and quit. I think it’s a subconscious generational response that they have to do something to help.”
Recently, senior Shirin Kasturia traveled to Phnom Penh to help victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. She convinced teachers at her former high school to donate eight computers, shipped them to Phnom Penh, then set up a computer lab to teach the women basic skills. But shipping the computers caused a two-week delay at the Cambodian Customs Bureau. Kasturia didn’t know the culture or the language but somehow figured out how to get those computers through customs.
“Being in a situation where you’re not comfortable is a great spur to creativity,” Susnowitz says. “It heightens intellectual awareness that leads to inventive solutions.”
MIT students consistently are encouraged to solve the world’s problems today, she says. “If you wait for leadership opportunities until you have a professional reputation and money, what you learn is waiting, not doing. We believe that students are ready to change the world and do great things now.”
The students on these pages “are being challenged to become not only professionals but humanitarians,” she says. “We dare them not to wait.”