SAN FRANCISCO – On the 27th January 2017, in the midst of Ascent weekend, Minerva Schools organized their annual convention called Civitas at SomaARTS Cultural Centre in San Francisco. The event brought together 128 Minerva Students of the Class of 2020, 48 prospective students of the Class of 2021, the Minerva Schools’ staff and 66 civic partners working at high positions at different institutions across San Francisco.

Ben Nelson, CEO of Minerva Schools, introducing Civitas 2017 in San Francisco | Photo: Antonio Fowl Stark

Civitas was spread into four phases. The first phase was the exploratory phase where a student dives deeper into their own experiences and share their personal opinions about success and failure. Students, civic partners and Minerva staff organize into groups of six to eight and discuss about their life experiences, and how have they shaped the person they are today. This phase is an important part of Minerva Schools’ strategy to make everyone realize where they come from and how privileged they are to be here and how great everyone’s experiences are. It helps build empathy towards the people in the community and appreciate their presence.

The first phase was followed by the kick-off program, presented by Z. Mike Wang, Director of Student Experience and Community Engagement. The program started with a welcoming note by Ben Nelson, founder of Minerva Schools. Following the welcome note, eight Minerva students, four civic partners, and four Minerva staff members shared their insights on what they want to be when they grow up. The answers were enlightening and ranged from philosophical thoughts to specific goals. Interestingly, no one talked about a specific academic goal. This highlights one aspect of the Minerva community: we strive to become change makers that achieve goals one step at a time. We do not care  how the world defines us, as we define ourselves in the way that we can change the world.

The second and third phases of Civitas were discussions on big questions that are trying to be addressed in the world today. The participants were divided into eight groups, and each group discussed one question at length for an hour. Some of the questions were “Can we do better than democracy?”, “Why are the history curriculums biased ?” and “How can technologies sustain themselves without extra resources?”. Both discussion sessions were followed by a 20 minute networking session where students could talk more with the civic partners and Minerva staff members to build on their ideas.

These middle two phases of Civitas were built on the renaissance model. This model defies two conventional models of community meetings: “Networking for Networking’s sake” and  “Sharing of ideas just for the sake of sharing ideas”. The model believes that we must network for a constructive outcome, such as a project or an idea, and not for the sake of building a network. Secondly, the model emphasizes the need for constructive outcomes to community meetings.

The questions of both these phases were shaped in such a way as to allow everyone to build, discuss, and reflect on them. These questions didn’t have a definite answer, nor did we want to achieve one. They were meant to challenge the boundaries of every Minervan and how far one can go to listen to everybody’s opinions and shape ideas in a way that you can see the construction of a network of ideas collectively progressing towards change.

The fourth phase was the “Civic Partner” session where a few civic partners shared challenging projects that were meant to solve problems in their organizations. These projects ranged from entrepreneurship to art to theatre to social change. Students were allowed to network with these civic partners in order to discuss the opportunities that they have brought and how can they get involved. The hour and a half hour networking session was the end of Civitas and Minervans headed back to their residence to carry out the activities of Ascent weekend.

Civitas went really well in terms of an overarching goal we wanted to achieve. We brought the community together to discuss and reflect on ideas; we gave Minervans the opportunity to work with civic partners such as the NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center, Dalberg Advisors, Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, and SF Opera.

At the end of the day, Civitas had achieved their vision. There were meaningful conversations between students of both M2020 and M2021. The students of M2020 have now established a very elite network of people who can help them grow and achieve extraordinary.