Righting the Past, Writing the Future

    Looking back and looking ahead, what has changed for the better and what still needs to change for the better? Participants in the ChangeMakers initiative at the Student Innovation Center at Iowa State University, led by program director Karen Piconi Kerns, discussed these important questions in a special WayMaker forum.

    Taking part were:
    Jeffrey Wagstaff: Pre-business
    Ayman Karmi: Materials science and engineering
    Thayla Tuler: Business
    Sarah Ng: Industrial engineering
    Elvis Kimara: Software engineering
    Imtiajul Alam: Human computer interaction
    Eva Newland: Journalism
    Faith Toweh: Political science
    Chidinma Ukoha Kalu: Human computer interaction and industrial design

    WJ: What have been the most innovative changes of the last 20 years?
    I would say how politics has become more inclusive. We are hearing voices from young people from all walks of life and even from people who believe things that we kind of don’t agree with within society. And then there’s human rights: it’s more visible due to smartphones and technology. Everybody’s involved in the fight.
    Ayman: Social media has been absolutely huge. It influences everything, politics included. Not only has it connected everyone in a way that is much easier than it was before, but it’s given people access to certain initiatives.
    Thayla: I believe that women are having more of a voice and getting more recognition. Even though I believe we still need to change some things, I believe that we are making progress.
    Imtiajul: Social media and the availability of the internet. I come from Bangladesh and in neighboring Myanmar they wiped out like one million people… the world knows about this because of the internet. Nowadays, if anyone can do anything wrong, the chances are very high that they will get exposed.
    Chidinma: What comes to mind is access to information on the internet, the ability to just google anything, to hear multiple sources of news, to be able to connect to anybody in the world, anywhere they are—friends and family, strangers—through social media, LinkedIn for work, Facebook for friends and family. I feel like it’s changed everything around us. Nothing is the same anymore: news is not the same, learning is not the same, politics is not the same, because of our access.

    WJ: If you could enact one law to make significant social or cultural change, what would it be?
    In politics, I wish there were term limits because there are a lot of senators and representatives that have been there for a long time. So, term limits as a way to have new leadership, new ideas.
    Eva: I would have every public-school teacher, K-12, be paid the median income because I think that teachers are some of the most impactful individuals on every single person, and I think that they deserve to be paid fairly. And I think that there are huge economic and social gaps between those who go to a high school, any school where they have funding and their teachers are being paid to do their jobs, and those that don’t. That would be a great place to start, closing that gap to make sure that every child has access to information that they need to be anything that they want to be.
    Ayman: In the United States there are 500,000 homeless people and 17 million vacant homes. I would make housing available to everybody that needed it.

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    WJ: What does the next generation of innovative leaders need to be focused on?
    I would say focus in on your craft, because innovation comes in all different variations. It has expanded to all walks of life, so focus on perfecting that now, then you can take off with it later on.

    Politics has become more inclusive… everybody’s involved in the fight.


    Jeffrey: I believe that the next generation of innovative leaders should continue to combat climate change around the world. I want the next generation to focus on what type of products they can create from reused plastic. Trillions of plastics are found within the ocean, and what is a better way to reduce the plastic in the ocean [than] by creating innovation from it?

    WJ: Does innovative leadership look different today, or need to look different today, than in previous generations?
    Eva: I definitely think it does. The world is changing incredibly quickly. I think our generation needs to focus on the connections that we’re building with others. The world is too big to take it on by ourselves and our problems are too big to take them on by ourselves. I think in the past there was a mindset like, well, if you work hard enough, you can do anything by yourself. And now, I think more than ever, we need each other, and we need to support each other, and we need to use each other’s strengths to make positive change. As leaders and as people who are so passionate about the kind of change that we want to make in the world, we need to be humble about it and we need to reach out to each other and really focus on making widespread community-based change rather than individual gain.
    Ayman: I want to call back to something Louis [Carr] said to us at one of our first sessions: Being a leader is all about activating the potential of your team. I think COVID has taught us a few methods that will make that activation accessible to people who maybe can’t work in the office; they have to work from home. We need to build towards making that accessible and being more inclusive in accommodating everyone who has potential to activate.
    Thayla: We have to have empathy. We have to learn about what is the real power and how we have to be ourselves and how to improve and understand others and listen and share and help.

    WJ: Tell us about a young innovator currently that you admire today as an example of the different kinds of innovation that we need to see more of?
    Elvis: I think of Greta Thunberg… she’s very inventive… her existence is causing me to talk about her right now, and I feel like climate change is a very big issue. And I think someone her age [being involved] at a very young age is very important.
    Ayman: I met this woman who was featured in “40 under 40” a couple of weeks ago, who has a home-building business out of North Carolina, named Alaina Money-Garman. I really admire how she is connecting her business, which is home-building, to charity and providing housing for people that need it—so, working with Habitat for Humanity and incentivizing a charity with the purchase of each home.

    WJ: What is one piece of academic advice that has changed or shaped your trajectory?
    My professors Dr. Dirk Deam and Dr. Alex Tuckness told me don’t stop asking questions even when they get hard. If you’re curious, keep asking those hard questions and don’t just let people provide you with answers. Go, search and make sure those answers are fact.
    Jeffrey: There’s this famous quote from Winston Churchill, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” How that connects to me is that I’m always afraid of taking opportunities because I feel like it’s just too much for me or it’s above my level. I can really compare it to the ChangeMakers program, because I really felt like this is a bit too much for me, because I am a freshman; this is my first semester. But I also need to think like, Hey, if I want to take my first step forward, I might as well do it now, as compared to later in life.
    Thayla: My mom was always telling me, when I think that I can’t do it, that no one is born knowing everything. That’s why they would need to keep studying and fighting.
    Ayman: It’s something Karen [Kerns] helped me discover: If you want to be an innovator, act like an innovator, similar to the quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Even if you don’t have the resources or the people or anything like that, you can still participate in innovation by pursuing opportunities, being enthusiastic about projects and building your experience that way.
    Imtaiji: More like reassurance [than advice]: I was talking to one of my professors and I was worried because I’m doing a Ph.D.; I’m learning more and more about less and less. He said maybe you are specializing in something, but the course you are doing is teaching you to stay longer with your problem.
    Eva: My advice came from one of my advisors in high school and she told me that it’s OK to not take one thing. I have a lot of interests and a lot of wide and varied passions and being told that it’s OK to mix those together, it’s OK to attack problems from different points of view, was really helpful to me. It gave me permission to use all of my strengths, not just to settle on using one to pursue one specific path, but to really stretch myself and to grow and to do everything that I wanted to.
    Chidinma: One thing that I remember is that I need to keep a positive attitude, because I felt that I used to let things get to me when I tried a lot of things in my life and they didn’t work out and it seemed like the world was crashing down on me. Just having this positivity that things will work out if you keep at it and there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.
    Sarah: I’m going to mention two. The first is from Karen [Kerns] and it is the importance of being drawn versus being driven, and making sure you don’t burn yourself out by… like being drawn to something when it doesn’t really fit what you’re meant to do or meant to be focusing on. And the second one would be that it’s OK not to be perfect, because I grew up most of my life trying to be that perfect Asian child and doing all the things that I thought I had to do and was meant to do, and it took a while for me to realize that it’s OK, that I don’t have to be like that, and I don’t have to follow that stereotype or be perfect every single time in everything I do.
    Elvis: My mom always told me that college is not a competition, or a race and I should think about in terms of being a marathon. And I take that advice seriously when I think of class registrations… there’s ChangeMakers, there’s life outside of school and other things I should be accomplishing or reaching out towards. I don’t have to finish in four years; I could finish in five years and finish stronger. A second piece of advice I think I got it from my dad. It wasn’t towards academics, but I think it applies a lot. He always said we should ask questions because he believed if you ask questions, it shows you are paying attention. You have to have an inquisitive mind because it shows you’re sharp and you actually like digging into what the problem is.

    WJ: We all know the country has been divided over race over the last couple of years. How can academic institutions help change that?
    Faith: I would say continue doing research and providing that middle ground [so] that students from different perspectives can have those tough conversations.
    Ayman: Thinking about how we can maybe get more people into college that have been excluded due to constraints around their race. It’s about not doing things for people but doing them with them, so maybe some aspects of community outreach in conjunction with scholarships and other things that can be called more accessible.
    Jeffrey: I feel that academic institutions have done a good job of providing diversity. Many colleges have a whole variety of clubs and organizations to be a part of and a way for you to voice out your opinions. I feel like now, in this generation, that colleges tend to value diversity more to offer students different perspectives and worldviews to help students gain a better understanding of their peers.
    Eva: The people employed by the university need to represent a diverse group and I think for the most part they do a good job, but I think that’s something that we always need to be focused on. When we talked to Dr. Monic Behnken [Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences], she informed us that there are only eight Black professors on Iowa State’s campus. That number shocked me. We as Iowa State students, we as Iowans and we as Americans need to start addressing that and the people that we’re learning from need to be diverse so that we can have those discussions, so people can see that there are different points of view. And I think that’s the way that we’re going to be able to create that safe space.

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