Civic projects are an opportunity created by Minerva’s Student Experience team to help students engage with organizations in Minerva cities. They are meant to provide an opportunity to create deeper connections in the places we visit, and to build or practice professional skills outside of the classroom.

Each project involves a civic partner, which could be any person or organization that exists in the city, from individual writers to large corporations. These partners present a problem for Minerva students to tackle varying widely in scope and purpose. The projects are initiated following an event called Civitas, and presented at the end of the semester at another Minerva event labeled: Symposium.

The projects have evolved to meet students’ demand for an outlet to leave an impact on the cities. In each project, students get to build relationships with locals, work on adding value to an organization, and cultivate skills that will be useful in their potential future careers.

Suraj Paneru, of the class of 2020, who worked with an early stage startup, Team Element, while in Seoul, says, “It gives me a chance to pursue something that teaches me lessons I never thought I would need.”

Many students are deterred from pursuing projects for a variety of reasons. A prevalent issue that Student Experience staff has been working to fix is the lack of diversity in projects. In Seoul, students rejoiced at the science-related opportunities, which appeared for the first time. For example, a partnership with Ewha Womans University manifested into several different projects exploring biodiversity in Seoul and across the peninsula. A team of students worked to apply the Singapore Index on Cities’ Biodiversity to Seoul, and developed a GIS map illustrating the habitat connectivity of a single species across green spaces in and around the city.

Other students, however, were disappointed to find that many projects still centered around tech, finance, and other business roles. While these are still good opportunities, they cater to only a portion of student interests. Among the Symposium presentations in Seoul there was one project with Korean tech giant Naver, another IT based project with SAP, and two finance projects (one with a venture capital firm and one on blockchain for banking).

While these might appeal to a more diverse set of students in the particulars of the projects–the SAP project targeting corporate social responsibility and environmental issues in Seoul–it is striking to see that only one arts or humanities based project, done with Artisan to design an engaging educational experience, was showcased at the event.  

Part of this struggle to fit individual interests might be due to the separation of industry and functional preferences, which can be difficult to find an overlap for. For example, a student interested in the medical field might not be interested in the data analysis skills required for a project redesigning a hospital’s layout and signage, as was offered by Asan Medical Center in Seoul. But, a student interested in social entrepreneurship might happen to connect with the direct impact opportunity of that very same project. Of course, the resonance of a particular project with a students’ passions and career objectives is only one element considered before deciding to join up.

Another obstacle many students struggle with is fitting a project into their busy schedules. Minerva students have extremely demanding academic workloads, with 12 hours spent in class per week along with two to four hours required to prepare for each class session. They are also engaged with internal student experience events, and student initiatives, which can take up five hours each week, with even more being required of leaders of such initiatives. Further, many students have work-study and need to spend ten hours per week on their jobs in order to cover their daily expenses.

But, even once all these hurdles are jumped, and a student commits to a project, there are still more obstacles to overcome. One of the most prominent hurdles for any project is the need to align expectations, both from students and partners, with partner’s needs, students skills and a realistic timeline and goals.

Minervans, as undergraduates, found themselves doing some grunt work as interns in a Hanyang epigenetics lab. Making it possible the initial hopes for the project were not realistic.

The team working with Naver was able to prototype a full app catered to foreigners in Seoul, but was not able to see it through user testing to potentially push for a launch.

These projects were still very successful at helping students grow and make a contribution to the organization, but they show how the actual experience of working on a civic project will often go astray from the impression made during the Civitas pitch.

There are benefits to be reaped by students partaking in these projects, which weigh against the aforementioned challenges in the decision to pursue a project.

Perhaps the simplest gain is experience, which can translate into resume and interview material, or help inform what types of opportunities the student might want to pursue moving forward,including the possibility of an offer to work with the partner in a formal internship over the summer. But, these impersonal benefits are usually accompanied by legitimate, substantial growth, which makes it much more valuable than a bullet point on a plea for employment. The lessons learned are diverse, and can translate into a leg up academically and professionally, as well as being valuable for character development.

Further, the outcome of these projects often manifests into something the organization continues to use and implement which may improve life for those who work for them, or even create something which a wide base of users benefit from. Plus, regardless of the lifespan of the final product, the relationships built with partners, as well as among peer teammates, tend to persist. This element of personal connection can easily be the most valuable takeaway from an experience, and should not be discounted when contemplating taking on a project.

Civic projects are changing, and generally improving, each semester. The number of projects offered and the diversity of industries represented has improved greatly, with only about 6 from last year between both Berlin and Buenos Aires, blossoming into nearly 30 possibilities in Seoul. As each semester passes, we also have more and more examples of projects that went right, which can help inform the design of new projects in new cities. Additionally, students are gaining experience working with partners in this capacity, which helps them play a better active role in creating the type of project they know to be valuable for all parties involved.

Staff are still struggling to create a consistent experience, and help with follow-up on projects that go astray. While some projects were presented at Symposium, a spreadsheet of thirty opportunities turned into ten presentations. What happened to the rest? Aside from internal continuity or follow-up, students can personally struggle to maintain relationships with partners once we have abandoned a city.

Civic projects feel like a necessary invention to make the most of Minerva’s seven-city model, but students should be aware of the pitfalls of the system as they contemplate joining a new project following Civitas Hyderabad this Friday, February 2nd.

Consider: what do you want to get out of the project; Connections, career-related experience, a different perspective on the culture. And, what are you going to offer to make the project successful? Hard skills? Team rallying and excitement? Can you dedicate enough time to the project? And, the key to fulfillment seems to be an appropriate mix of dedication and persistence with carefully measured expectations.