The Perfect Fit

As far as experiential education goes, it doesn’t get much more real than an intense immersion program like the Master of Nonprofit Management’s (MNM) Service Oriented Field Experience (SOFE). Started in 1999, the program has led hundreds of students on domestic and international immersions to expose them to new ways of thinking and cultural issues foreign to their own.

A SOFE is one of the capstone options for MNM students. There are currently four active SOFE offerings, each held at different times of year. SOFEs are offered within the eight-week time frame, with the first three weeks generally spent reading and reflecting on the history and cultural context of a specific location. In the spring, students onSOFEs travel to Navajo Nation in the four corners region (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona).

In the summer, it’s a local immersion in the Denver Metro Area, and in the fall, the opportunity alternates yearly between two international locations: SOFE in Peru andSOFE in East Africa.

Spending the beginning weeks of the course becoming acquaint-ed with a geographic location and its culture in an academic sense is at the core of the curriculum for a SOFE. “Getting to know the issues of the culture is really important. Students receive region-specific literature and resources. East Africa’s text will look very different than Navajo Nation coursework,” said Megan Maes, administrative coordinator for the Global Nonprofit Leadership Department in Regis’ College for Professional Studies.

“Most people are familiar with mission-type groups that advertise, ‘We’re going to Mexico to build a house,’ or something similar. But we don’t do that. As an intentional, experiential class, that means we’re not coming to dig and/or fill holes. We’re not necessarily here to solve a problem,” said Kinoti Meme, assistant professor of nonprofit management and the faculty chair of the Glob-al Nonprofit Leadership Department. “We’re not coming in with an agenda. We’re coming to learn from the civil society leaders.”

In the fall of 2013, she realized that it was time that she was the recipient of life architecture. Jennifer temporarily interrupted her education when she answered a calling to go to Costa Rica. She courageously gave up all of her worldly belongings to move there and live for two and a half months. It was a life changing experience where she lived in a cabina on a cafetal (coffee farm) in Sarchi. She found herself on a journey of personal growth, peeling herself like an onion and discovering an inner self that had been hidden. Jennifer’s gift to herself may be the greatest gift she ever received.

Part of the learning process for the group is to ask key questions to help unpack some of the complex issues that many nonprofits face: What are the issues in your context and how are you ad-dressing the issues? What are your challenges and what are your successes? “The immersion trips are experiential in that we try to get into the cultural mindset and learn in that sense, leaving the culture of the United States or Denver behind. They’re experiential because we observe them doing what they do,” said Meme.

Learners spend approximately two weeks in the locale, depend-ing on the design of the specific immersion experience. Activities include several visits to local nonprofits and listening to nonprofit employees share about their role and understanding of working with the population of their region. All of the hands-on visits are meant to enhance understanding of issues of social justice and the role of community in the specific location. One of the main goals of each SOFE is to help adult learners increase their under-standing of social justice concerns in light of culture, poverty and community development.

The Denver Metro SOFE can look a little bit different, since most students do not experience as much cultural adjustment. But some do. “One of the activities of the Denver immersion asks students to fill out a food stamp application. Students are amazed at how hard and challenging that can be. We also do some experiential challenges where they’re given $2.25 per per-son, per meal, and asked to shop in a grocery store to see how difficult that is,” said Maes.

The final three weeks of the SOFE are focused on processing the experiential learning that has occurred. A learner’s final report is focused on a nonprofit or community partner that they interacted with while on immersion. Projects can range from creating a development or fundraising plan to a social marketing plan, whatever that community needs.

“This is the way we give back. They are graduate level students and they have done a lot of prep be-fore we go. They have a good understanding of social, political and economic impacts on society. Then we are there experiencing, walking, tasting their culture,” said Meme.

And that’s what makes the SOFE so unique. With students who are currently in the nonprofit world, many are able to connect what they’re learning to real life situations already. But instead of letting them formulate a project based on their previous knowledge, Meme and other SOFE faculty encourage students to stop and listen. “We try to discourage students from coming in with an agenda for their final project. They can do anything, but it has to be a need that’s expressed by the organization. They have to show they are engaged and are taking on the role of a consult-ant,” said Meme.

After troubleshooting and planning a project from start to finish, with another culture in mind, SOFE participants can show their ability to listen and learn with their client’s needs at the forefront. Learners are better equipped to explore and research solutions that will truly fit the needs of the nonprofit’s client, no matter what barriers may surface. In the Jesuit tradition of serving with others, CPS learners can now demonstrate their skills in a culturally competent way; a way that truly serves.

Get more information and learn about the upcoming SOFE Schedule.