Once upon a time, the visiting “rock stars” on college campuses were, well, rock stars. Or at any rate they were people who exuded rock-star glamour—luminaries from the world of entertainment and celebrity, or high-profile figures from “power” fields such as government, law, and business.
It’s different now. Today, the speakers who draw the biggest and most boisterous crowds—who fill students with a yearning to follow in their footsteps—are often dedicated men and women who run “do-gooding” organizations. They are nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs. In many cases, they work in the poorest, least-glamorous regions of the world.
Consider the unlikely stardom of Dr. Paul Farmer. He’s a cofounder of Partners in Health, a highly regarded nonprofit that brings health care to the world’s poorest families in countries such as Haiti and Peru. He was the featured subject of the bestselling book Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. A few years ago, he came to Stanford University, where both of us now teach. We were simply astounded by the reception that he got.
Farmer spoke to a standing-only crowd of students who listened rapturously to his every word. These students wanted to see him, to hear him, to learn from him. They wanted to be him. Many of them clearly viewed his career as an agent of social change as a compelling model for their own nascent careers. Bill Drayton of Ashoka, Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen, Raj Panjabi of Last Mile Health, and Fred Swaniker of African Leadership Academy also draw crowds on campuses across the United States and around the world.
Hard data, meanwhile, show that this shift in students’ interest is both real and deep. It goes beyond the momentary excitement of a speaker’s appearance on campus, and it involves pivotal career choices. Consider Teach for America (TFA), a nonprofit that recruits and trains college graduates to teach in low-income U.S. K-12 schools. According to a recent report, TFA has become the top employer among new graduates from a set of 40-plus leading colleges. In one recent year, 12% of all graduating seniors from Ivy League universities applied to join the organization.
To be sure, plenty of Ivy League grads still go into law, finance and other lucrative fields. But the rise of TFA as a desirable career step for students at elite universities points to a sea change in how young people regard social sector work.