“Everything we do in this program is shaped by inclusive and impact driven partnerships. We place a high value on the role of our local partners as co educators. Several years ago, we made a decision to keep our faculty at home. We were seeing that the traditional power dynamics of the classroom were sometimes following us into the field; students were too often deferring to faculty as the experts rather than the local people they lived and worked with. So instead students work directly with in country partners who supervise and advise their work and guide their overall integration with the community.” – Patrick Eccles, Associate Director of Global Engagement Programs

Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI) – 2016 Awardee

The Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI), housed within the Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University, is an innovative study abroad program that focuses on collaborative efforts and ethical, sustainable community driven change. The program aims to equip undergraduate students with critical perspectives, tools, and experiences to confront shared global challenges.


The program combines rigorous academic training through intensive pre-departure coursework and a final reflection summit, with 8-10 weeks of hands on international fieldwork. GESI participants live in homestays and work in interdisciplinary groups of 3-5 at NGOs committed to issues like women’s empowerment, environmental sustainability, or income-generating innovations like the micro-consignment model designed by Ashoka Fellow Greg Van Kirk.


GESI has become strongly identified with shared efforts at Northwestern to make our campus and programs inclusive. In recent years, GESI has become one of the most diverse study abroad programs in the country. In 2015, 72% of students were students of color – nearly a reversal of national trends for underrepresented students involved in study abroad. Campus partnerships between students, staff, faculty, donors, and other offices have organized support for scholarships, intentional recruitment practices, and a peer education model that examines how identity, power and privilege shape our experiences at home and abroad.



GESI has sent over 464 students to 9 countries, contributing to 130 community-based projects through their work with our partner organizations, including efforts in small business development, microfinance, income generation projects and campaigns advocating for women’s empowerment, early childhood education, and environmental sustainability. GESI’s community partners provide consistent feedback on the positive impacts of students work abroad. Many of these projects are the catalyst for community driven initiatives that are maintained and provide improved services over several years. Over 90% of students involved in GESI cite it as the pinnacle of their learning as well as one of their most defining or formative experiences in college.

We pursue a mixed methods approach to assessment, including qualitative feedback through questionnaires at the start and conclusion of the program. Pre and post-test surveys demonstrate gains in global awareness, intercultural competence, and social responsibility, among other indicators. Other pre/post student self assessments have provided a quantitative measure of 20 skills that are strengthened, according to frequency and ability, to pursue collaborative change, participatory development and/or research. This includes improved competencies across difference in areas such as cross cultural communication, cooperative and ethical decision making, adaptability, emotional intelligence, attentive listening, ability to tolerate ambiguity and others. In an effort to equalize attention to student learning and community outcomes, we’ve started a new program that mobilizes alums of the program to return to GESI host communities to pursue community-based research and to analyze community impacts associated with our partnerships.


How can people get involved in or replicate your innovation?

GESI brings together a diverse team of bright, motivated undergraduates from across the country and a wide array of academic disciplines who share a passion for global change and a desire to develop their leadership and intercultural skills. GESI is open to both Northwestern and non-Northwestern participants of all years and disciplines. Click here to learn more about how to apply to GESI.


Contact information

Peter Eccles
Associate Director of Global Engagement Programs, Buffett Institute for Global Studies, Northwestern University

Cordes Innovation Awards

In partnership with Cordes Foundation, Ashoka U seeks to recognize globally relevant teaching, learning, and partnership practices that may be adapted and replicated across the field.