Joan Dassin shows social impact of HE in ACU Perspectives talk

Joan Dassin shows social impact of HE in ACU Perspectives talk

Published on 19 June 2014

Dr Joan Dassin, the founding Executive Director of the Ford Foundation International Fellowship Program (IFP), delivered an ACU Perspectives talk in which she demonstrated how providing higher education opportunities for socially-conscious individuals from poor and marginalised communities could end up catalysing wider change in those communities.

Speaking at the event held at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, she explained how many IFP fellows were fulfilling the role of ‘change agents’ in marginalised communities, thus using the opportunity bestowed upon them to subsequently improve the lives of others.

The Ford Foundation International Fellowship Programme was headed by Dr Dassin for the 13 years in which it operated. Over that period, 4,300 fellows from 22 countries took up higher education placements in over 50 countries. 

With the programme now having drawn to a close, Dr Dassin’s recent work has been focussed on evaluating the USD 350m programme’s impact. In addition to general quantitative outcomes – 97% of fellows completed their fellowship and 82% returned to their country of origin – Dr Dassin’s analysis highlights the development impacts of the programme, and is equally concerned with whether it has had an impact on government policies and programmes to expand access to and equity in higher education (as has been the case in Mexico) and, on the individual level, whether it has produced the active social changemakers that the programme sought to invest so heavily in.

Throughout her ACU Perspecitves talk, Dr Dassin constantly referred to the question of not only measuring ‘impact’, but defining it in the first place.

‘What is impact? What constitutes impact? Demonstrating impact means demonstrating that people you have supported at some cost over a relatively long period of time will be able to pass that benefit on to others in whatever way they want to do that,’ she said, speaking of how one particular fellow, Francisco Kennedy de Souza, started a university for the indigenous people of the Amazon.

Dr Dassin also cited a TEDx Nairobi speech made by IFP Fellow Raphael Obonyo, raised in Korogocho (one of Nairobi's largest slums), in which he said that after going to university, most of his coursemates when into auditing firms or other corporate entities. Raphael, driven by a desire to trigger change in his region, had other ideas.

‘I told myself that I have a responsibility. I have been the beneficiary of the goodness of people. I told myself I have got to do something. I can go to an auditing firm, get a good job and put on a tie every day but that would just be for me. Perhaps there is a way that I can go back [home] and make a difference for other young people...’ he said (watch video from 6'12").

‘As we think about education empowering people, in this kind of context where they are typically surrounded with poverty and negativity, [education] makes an enormous difference and its very inspiring to others,’ Dr Dassin commented. In following up with the lives of some of the fellows she said, ‘I’m looking for main themes, and one that has emerged in a much more salient way than I’d have imagined is that education itself becomes a very transformative element, not only for the fellows having experienced access to high quality programmes, but for the people and the communities that they work with.’

These were sentiments echoed through the many case studies and anecdotes Dr Dassin shared with the ACU Perspectives audience, which consisted of scholarship administrators, Chevening and Commonwealth Scholars and other higher education stakeholders.

Fielding a question from Himadri Das, a Commonwealth Scholar and PhD Researcher at Imperial College London, about what else scholars can do to inspire and empower others when they return, Dr Dassin asserted that no matter what field one studied, there are ways to deploy the knowledge and skills gained for the greater good.

‘All it takes is a frame of mind where you think about what the social applications of your field of study are... There are many ways to exercise leadership and promote social change. One of the characteristics I noticed about IFP fellows is that they had a tremendous capacity to imagine what’s not already there, to see the world in a different way. This has always been one of the benefits of international higher education.’  

Whilst she asserted that the model of providing international higher education opportunities for individuals and encouraging them to return home and, in turn, empower others in the communities works, she also acknowledged the limitations of such schemes. She emphasised that it was not the mandate of scholarship programmes to be career counsellors or social change agencies – though she wished it were. It was up to them to find a balance between their focus on scholarships and maximising opportunities to work with and support alumni who are already engaged and grateful for the opportunity afforded to them.

Dr Dassin leaves London this week having arrived in September 2013 when she took up a post as a visiting researcher at the Centre for Latin American Studies and St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. From July 2014 she will return to her alma mater, Brandeis University, Massachusetts, to assume the position of Professor and Director of the Sustainable International Development Programme at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

View more photographs from the event on Flickr.

Listen to the full talk on Soundcloud:

Video excerpts will be available via the main ACU Perspectives page shortly.

The ACU Perspectives speaker series offers ACU members and friends a chance to contribute to the debates and discussions on the future directions of higher education, to share their ideas and experiences, and to bring insights from their own region, institution or discipline.

The series theme is ‘Change and opportunity in higher education’ – a deliberately broad topic, allowing speakers to engage with the subject of their choice using local context and personal experience.

You can find out more about the ACU Perspectives speaker series and view past talks here: