Santa Clara professor on what it means to be a lifelong learner
November 1, 2018
The following is an entry in a series called “Voices of Santa Clara,” which profiles noteworthy students and faculty. The Q & A is excerpted from the “Voices of Santa Clara” podcast.
Dr. Michelle Stecker works for the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara and teaches classes on innovation, design thinking and social entrepreneurship. Stecker has worked in a wide range of fields and has an impressive list of educational accomplishments: a Bachelor’s in History from George Fox, a Master’s in Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, a law degree from University of Toledo and a Ph.D. in history also from the University of Toledo.
Gavin Cosgrave: What were your career plans in college?
Michelle Stecker: I was a history major and a music minor. I thought I would be a professional musician playing cello and playing in symphonies. When I was preparing to go to college, my dad told me I needed to get a liberal arts degree just in case the music thing didn’t work out.
As it turned out, I have played music professionally, but the history major was actually a good idea. Even though it isn’t super practical, it gave me the opportunity to do a Ph.D. in history, and it was helpful for my law degree as well. I think that everything you do in life is building blocks, and you never know how it will work out.
GC: Why so many graduate degrees?
MS: I love school. I love to learn and I’m a lifelong learner. That’s what I love about teaching: I get to work with students who are lifelong learners. My job is to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet. There’s a lot of pressure on students, but I tell them to relax. I believe that my next job doesn’t exist yet.
I do have a lot of degrees, I got my Masters in Divinity, I’m an ordained Presbyterian minister and I did youth ministry for a number of years. Then I went back to school and did a Ph.D. in history specializing in reform movements in the U.S. Then finally I got a law degree in employment law and did a lot of civil rights work. I would like to get an MBA someday, but who knows?
GC: What work did you do in civil rights law?
MS: I did a lot of LGBTQ civil rights work. I was at the University of Toledo, and my partner Carol was a vice-provost there and I couldn’t access her health insurance benefits. We finally convinced the university to give us the benefits, but then we couldn’t prove that we were domestic partners. I worked again to pass a law in Toledo so that gay and lesbian couples could prove that they were in relationships. I founded a non-profit organization called Equality Toledo which worked for education and basic civil rights. For you all now in a world of marriage equality, it wasn’t that long ago where we had no rights at all.
GC: How did you first get interested in social entrepreneurship?
MS: I was at Rollins College about seven years ago, and I had done a lot of women and gender studies work and history teaching. I was always depressing my students. I would say, “I’m really sorry that all of this is so depressing!”
I met a woman working at the Florida Hospital and Innovation Lab and she was all about innovation. When we met, we decided to build something new and brought my students there. We started collaborating with other departments on campus, and came up with a crazy idea: start a major in social entrepreneurship to help empower students to be change makers. We did it. And at the time, we had no idea it was the first of its kind.
The students voted with their feet, and it became the sixth most populated major at Rollins within a year. The students were so passionate and they’re doing great things with their lives now.
GC: What are some of the key skills people should know if they’re interested in social entrepreneurship?
MS: For me, everyone needs to know basic business skills. Then, the skills of being innovative, of human centered design thinking. The soft skills of resilience, persistence and creativity. Observing people, practicing empathy. The classes I create are experiential; teams are working on projects. I don’t lecture at them. Students learn from the wisdom of the room and gain the skills needed for jobs of the future.
GC: How do the classes you’re teaching at Santa Clara fit into the traditional framework of majors and departments?
MS: At first I thought you should have a major and minor in social entrepreneurship, but now I’m thinking that it should be integrated everywhere. My dream is that traditional liberal arts fields will change the names of their majors. For example, you could have sociology and innovation, or sociology and entrepreneurship. I would love to see it integrated, but I’m not sure how we’re going to get there.
GC: If we got rid of all the constructs of our current education system, what would you implement? What would be different about your system than the current one?
MS: One of the big reasons why people are in poverty is because they don’t have access to the skills, knowledge and competencies that they need to be successful. I would like to live in a world where education is democratized and everyone has access.
I’m hoping that we can start teaching kids of all ages. We can work in teams with technology, do project-based learning and look at the cannon of knowledge now. As a history professor, I used to make students memorize all this stuff, but now it’s at the tip of your fingers. Sure you need to not be ignorant and know some things, but having teamwork, leadership, critical thinking and creative confidence are necessary so that students can be lifelong learners.
My hope is that we can use this time of change for positive and impact more students. Let’s break down these silos and start from scratch. I think professors should be able to teach in two or three fields, and teach together.
To listen to the full interview, visit voicesofsantaclara.com or search “Voices of Santa Clara” on the iTunes Podcast App.