Late on a Friday afternoon in mid-January, five University of Toledo students huddle around a set of tables in a seminar room to bounce ideas off each other. Class is not in session, and no assignment is due. Looming large in their minds is not the upcoming three-day weekend, but a more profound set of numbers — the 10 million children in urban slums, whom they can help escape vicious circles of poverty and illiteracy by the year 2020.
Little of this scenario is typical, but neither is the achievement of these students.They have been selected in the top 1.25 percent of more than 20,000 applying teams from around the globe to compete in regional competitions for the Sixth Annual Hult Prize. In doing so, they have joined the ranks of students from schools such as the University of Cambridge, John Hopkins University, the London School of Economics, the University of Virginia and Northwestern University.
The team includes four Jesup Scott Honors College undergraduate students — Kaitlyn Opperman, Merna Naji, Mahbod Pourriahi and Abigail Dudek — as well as one doctoral candidate, Nehemiah Scott, who is in the Manufacturing and Technology Management Program.
Coined the “Nobel Prize for Students” by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, the annual Hult Prize Competition is the world’s largest student case competition, awarding the winners $1 million in seed capital to promote social good. The competition, in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative, capitalizes on promising ideas of young and socially engaged entrepreneurs, growing them into actual startup enterprises.
The theme of this year’s competition is to propose a solution for early childhood education disparities for residents of urban slums.
“Our goal is to close the gap between children growing up without access to early education programs that jump-start the learning process, among other things,” said Opperman, a junior majoring in secondary/adolescence to young adult education. “The brain development that happens at that age is crucial to setting them up for the rest of their education and lives.”
“We are trying to find a solution that is scalable, sustainable and holistic,” added Naji, a junior majoring in biology. “Because we are such a diverse team, we have members who bring health, educational, business and engineering/infrastructure perspectives to the table.”
Aside from their diversity of academic backgrounds, the UT Hult team is also different from traditional teams in that the majority of Hult Prize competitors are MBA students, rather than undergraduate students.
“We are extremely humbled and excited to showcase our social enterprise before globally recognized social leaders and some of the best institutions in the world,” Scott added. “Most of all, we are excited for the opportunity to create positive educational change in the lives of children, their families and their communities.”
All of the UT students involved credit their advancement in large part to the networks and resources provided by the Jesup Scott Honors College.
“People are surprised by the variety of offerings available in the Honors College,” said Dudek, a sophomore majoring in international business. “It has broken all of the expectations I have ever had about being a student at UT, offering opportunities I never thought would be possible.”
Pourriahi, a sophomore majoring in bioengineering, echoed the sentiment : “The Honors College allows you to go beyond the classroom and to develop such involved relationships with your professors,” he said. “I have friends at other universities who can barely speak to their advisers let alone casually walk into the dean’s office and receive guidance on projects.”
Dr. Lakeesha Ransom, dean of the Jesup Scott Honors College, will travel to Dubai with the UT Hult team during spring break for the regional finals competition.
“We are dedicated to creating as many transformative opportunities for our students as possible in the Honors College, and I’m incredibly proud that the UT Hult team will compete in the regional finals,” Ransom said. “I look forward to all that they will accomplish.”