Atle Alexander Johansen, like many seniors, is in the final weeks at UND.
But as the saying goes — once a Fellow, always a Fellow, or something like that.
At the end of 2016, Johansen and two other UND students were selected for the prestigious University Innovation Fellows (UIF) program. The Stanford University-based leadership program, now in its fifth year, helps students harness their innovative and creative energy as agents of change on college campuses across the globe.
After attending the official 2017 gathering, or “meetup,” of new Fellows, Johansen was one of 24 students asked to return and help lead the 2018 event in California’s Silicon Valley March 15-19.
Johansen, an accounting major from Drammen, Norway, says his first UIF experience, in 2016, was a complete change of mindset for him. Hosted by Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, the meetup works to create a space where all ideas and solutions are welcome.
“There’s really two elements to the meetup,” Johansen explained. “One is creating an environment of psychological safety where people feel comfortable sharing their individual ideas and perspectives. The other is learning design thinking, which is a method used to identify problems, generate ideas and prototype valuable solutions as a team.”
Johansen (above) gives a presentation to a new crop of University Innovation Fellows recently during a stop at Google’s HQ in California’s Silicon Valley. Image courtesy of University Innovation Fellows.
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At the heart of design thinking is empathy, he says; when people empathize, it often results in wider perspectives and greater creativity in finding valuable solutions.
The goal of the UIF program is to bolster this collaborative approach on college campuses.
“You have people who are extroverts, introverts, loud, quiet,” Johansen described of the most-recent meetup. “Over time, all these different groups feel so comfortable around each other that it’s like you can share anything. What this does to the design thinking process is the creation of so many more ideas.”
Johansen’s role in returning as a UIF was to facilitate events such as brainstorms for new Fellows, as well as present his progress with initiatives at UND.
His focus was on “Volunteers Together,” or VT, a student-run platform dedicated to making volunteering in the community as easy as possible. He gave a short talk at Google’s HQ to the new Fellows about what he’s learned over the past year.
“When people want to create an organization, they think their initial idea is the way they should go,” Johansen said. “But it’s important to see things from different perspectives and accept the fact that our individual perspectives are limited.”
Using VT as an example, Johansen illustrated that ventures become more effective when everyone is on the same page regarding the path of an organization.
“I did not expect this year’s meetup, as a facilitator, to be all that different from when I initially attended in 2016,” Johansen said. “But it was incredible. Just the environment that was created between the 24 of us returning was amazing.”
He went on to say it was an experience like no other — with remarkable synergy and support from people of all cultures, races, languages and countries.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in that kind of a team over a semester,” he remarked. “I was with that team for four days.”
Johansen’s challenge now is finding ways to sustain the organizations he’s helped establish at UND. He says it’s one thing to create a group, but entirely another to keep it going.
“It’s something we’re working on in VT right now,” he said. “We’re trying to adjust the model and get more people involved on the leadership side as a result.”
After graduation he’ll be moving to Minneapolis to work for Ernst & Young, one of the so-called “Big Four” accounting firms. The soon-to-be-accountant has his expectations in check, but knows there’s opportunities to innovate far beyond the classroom.
Johansen hopes to stay in the United States as long as possible.
“It’s just the opportunities that are in the U.S.,” he then chuckled. “The clichés are kind of true.”