SNHU’s economic development school is one of a kind
The Friday before Hurricane Katrina hit, Roy Alston - a consultant who was working with the Redevelopment Authority of New Orleans - had decided he would no longer put it off. He would cough up the $12,400 to cover tuition at the School of Community Economic Development at Southern New Hampshire University to earn his master’s degree. The program would require that he attend classes one weekend a month for 20 months, with intensive Internet coursework the rest of the month. And so here Alston was, attending his first SNHU classes the weekend of Sept. 24, on the cell phone with officials back home, his home surrounded by water while Hurricane Rita was even pouring more rain on top of it. And yet, he had no regrets that he was in Manchester embarking on a vigorous course of study. “It is even more critical for me to be here in New Hampshire. My area needs this type of scholarship,” he said. “The community must have a say in how it is rebuilt, and this school is right on target on giving folks the skills to affect policy. You got to have a strategy. You just can’t be reactive.” Call it an MBA program for those who want to work in nonprofit businesses. For the last quarter of a century, the CED School has been training students like Alston not to be reactive, training them in the business skills needed to run and grow the non-profits they are working with. The school, which started accepting students in 1980 as part of the business school of the then-New Hampshire College, now has 125 full-time students, international branches in such places as Tanzania, and some 1,000 alumni, most of whom work in community development programs around the world. “We don’t have any competition,” said Michael Swack, the school’s dean and founder. Yes, there are scores of other schools that offer courses, certificates and specializations in community economic development. But no other college offers both a masters program and a doctorate in community economic development. Most other schools train people to work in the government, whereas most CED graduates end up working in nonprofit institutions. After all, that’s where most of them came from. And no school really integrates theory and practice like the CED School, said Swack. Weekend students, for instance, don’t have to write a master’s thesis. Instead, they must complete a project in their community. They take courses that you might expect of any MBA student - accounting, financial management, business development - but they also take electives such as “Faith-based CED,” “Indigenous Economics,” “Development of Cooperatives” and “Affordable Housing Finance.” On the first weekend of the new semester, Swack urged them to think broadly, asking them to define their theory of change. “One of the things we want to challenge you on the very first day is to think: Is what you are doing working?,” he said, surrounded by 23 incoming students seated at three long tables. Of course, Swack added, measuring success in a nonprofit is more complicated than a regular business, where the goal is to make a profit. So the students break up into small groups to talk about defining success in what they do. In one corner, Utiange Ugbe of Nigeria, a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant, spoke about his dissertation, which is based on his work of helping settle African refugees in New Hampshire. Another student, Javier Solis, explains how he is working with one of the largest black churches in Harlem, teaching basic economic literacy, showing some residents, for instance, how to open a bank account, so they won’t have to pay high fees at a check-cashing center. “In America, people don’t know how to open a bank account?” Ugbe asked amazed. Solis nods. “They are adults?” he asked. “Yeah.” “Wow.” In another corner, Alston sat with Jennifer Gutshall, a 33-year-old “management partner” — she doesn’t believe in hierarchical titles like executive director - of the Cooperative Development Institute, located in Greenfield, Mass. Gutshall first helped form the nonprofit to sell renewable energy on the open market in the era of electricity deregulation. But the institute has since moved on to help New England dairy farmers market their organic milk at a premium as well as encouraging Latino translators in Providence, R.I., to band together to keep more of what they make for various agencies. Gutshall has attended the school twice before, and has two semesters under her belt, but she keeps getting interrupted by her job. But she already has found it useful. For instance, she picked up an idea for raising start-up capital from a discussion in an economic development financing class. Instead of asking friends and family to put up money, or even to co-sign for a loan, family members could put their funds in a certificate of deposit and put that up for collateral, giving them a fixed rate of return (as long as the venture does not completely go belly-up.) Not all of the students are weekend scholars. Many of the participants in SNHU’s international program often stay for 15 to 18 months as full-time students. Others attend a six-week summer intensive course, and then go home to work on their project, combined with online course work for two years, before coming back for a final summer term, where they will present what they learn. Fadia Jradi, a 27-year-old residential graduate student from the country of Lebanon, used to teach business administration herself, but she left the for-profit world to work for a United Nations agency that helps Palestinian refugees set up microbusinesses. She chose to spend her Fulbright scholarship at the CED School “to sharpen my skills so I can effect change on the margins,” she said. Innocentus Alhamis, another business professor - from Tanzania, where the CED school has set up a satellite school- is finishing up his doctorate on the equity capital of cooperatives. He is now a teaching assistant at SNHU. Alhamis was awarded his master’s degree in Japan, “but it was really frustrating to go to school, yet you fail to apply what you learn back home.” In Japan, the focus was on big companies and the major problem to discuss was how to generate demand. In Tanzania, however, there’s plenty of demand, but there’s not enough supply. And businesses are much smaller. At SNHU, what he learns “can really apply to my country, so I can help solve the market failure in development. I’m very happy.” So is Alston, even though his home was destroyed and his family is scattered all over the region. Still, he has fared better than most of the people he will be trying to help. His house was insured for flooding, and he had already bought another in Austin, Texas, where he will be relocating. But he feels for his former neighbors, many of whom were senior citizens. He has not been to New Orleans since the storms, only looking at it from above from the Internet. But he relishes the challenge of rebuilding New Orleans. He was already working with the city’s redevelopment authority before the storm to create a “comprehensive strategy of bringing capital resources though new market tax credit funding.” That three-year plan will be compressed into half the time after the hurricane, he said. This year, Alston will be the only one at the school working on redevelopment, but next year he will have some help. The school will be offering full scholarships to students from affected neighborhoods, said Swack. Some institutions might provide money, so it figures that the CED School has to come up with a creative way to provide sweat equity. “It’s our way to make a contribution,” Swack said.