I was once volunteering at an elementary school in Ypsilanti when a teacher told me that it is impossible to feel safe if your basic needs are not taken care of. She then said that more than 50 percent of her students don’t have their basic needs met. The question I continue turning over in my head is, “what are you privileged to think about when you don’t need to think about your health, safety and basic needs?” Sometimes I feel like my mind is liberated and I am living in the biggest and best game of “make believe.” Even though my heart aches every time I see someone less fortunate than me, I also recognize that I am the only person I can control, so that will have to do. I do not think I am unique in this idea; in fact, I have met many amazing individuals who seem to have this same sense of liberation. The commonality that strings us together is our desire to help people, create change and make an impact.

The buzzword “social entrepreneurship” has been floating across campus and ringing in my ears for a while now. The group optiMize, a student-driven social innovation movement that spans the University campus, seeks to bring creative and socially driven individuals together. Patrick Tonks, associate director of the Institute for Humanities, has jumpstarted a University-funded collection of student interest groups that similarly gather students to talk about what really matters. Additionally, TechArb, a student start-up accelerator, has similarly gathered a pool of students doing new and important things. The avenues are clearly there, and even without the guidance of these accelerator programs, many students have found sustenance in providing needs across campus and within the Ann Arbor community. Coffee clubs, book clubs, art shows and pop-up competitions are appearing out of thin air. It is prevalent and important work that is allowing University students to learn outside of the structure of a classroom and moreover, to find issues or needs that are particular to their individual and unique outlook on life.

I met with Max Steir, a 2013 University graduate and co-owner of Salads UP on East Liberty Street, and he had important wisdom to impart on students who plan on participating in similar ventures. After realizing that Ann Arbor lacked a healthy salad restaurant, he and a friend designed the new shop. The restaurant emanates sustainable and environmentally conscious efforts. From the locally sourced food to the reclaimed wood, the space radiates with a positive mission. Although the result is a rewarding experience, the process has its ebbs and flows. Steir said, “You have to deal with the fear of not exactly knowing when you are going to get your money back, but that you spent enough to know that you will get it back and that much more, and most importantly, that your operation will turn into exactly what you envisioned.”

It is important not to compromise one’s beliefs, but rather to see the project through.

Engineering senior Alex Ottenwess, who is majoring in industrial engineering and computer science, is embarking on a different path of entrepreneurship from a more tech-savvy angle. With the guidance of TechArb, Ottenwess and fellow teammates have designed an app called Wiz. Its purpose is to start connecting students to others in the classroom. He said, “It stemmed from a need I had in a lot of my big lecture and engineering courses where it would be 200 people, and I wouldn’t really get to know any of them. There is a big barrier to get to know people, but when I did find them, I really saw improvement in my understanding.” Wiz aims to open the doors of communication and interaction among classmates.

These tokens of wisdom from students our age are inspiring and accessible. It takes the support of every member of a community to see progress, but it also takes the motivation that our student body has to offer. If one is fortunate enough to be liberated from basic fears of safety and health, it seems that positive impact and solutions for change can now occupy part of one’s mind. Every entrepreneur has a different story to tell and there is no perfect mold, but if one is able to make the change they would like to see, it becomes so much more possible than it would be if they were passively watching time go by. It is our duty to bring these issues to the surface so we can spark the change. As Ottenwess attested, “A lot of people have great ideas for change, but never put them into action, and it remains just an idea. When you can take that little leap of faith, even if it’s really small, that is something put into action. It’s not going to change the world necessarily, but a lot of people struggle to make that initial leap of faith.”

I’m staring at a postcard my mom wrote me when I was in a freshman spell of sadness. Its says, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” If you are able, try to answer this question and do nothing short of that.

Dani Vignos can be reached at dvignos@umich.edu.

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