Creating opportunity
How the Minerva Project Is Reinventing Higher Education
Mark D'Alessio | August 4, 2015

This story originally appeared on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Blog 

Last August, I was intrigued with the new higher ed startup called Minerva Project which was about to begin its first year educating an inaugural class of 28 students from around the world. Named after the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva was founded by former 39-year-old Snapfish president Ben Nelson, whose mission was to dramatically improve the higher ed sector by starting an institution that eliminates all of the frills that come with a traditional college experience and instead focus on one thing only—learning.

There are no facilities at Minerva with the exception of a dorm in San Francisco. There are no classrooms, no lectures, no football teams. All of the “classes” are taught via an online platform by professors in the form of a seminar. The inaugural class studied in San Francisco for its first year, but will travel to cities around the globe to truly gain an international experience.

Recently, I ran into Alisha Fredriksson of the inaugural class at an education conference here in Washington, D.C. I was curious to know her story and her experience after one year at Minerva. She was eager to share and was kind enough to answer a few questions.       

Where are you from?

My family currently lives in Gothenburg, Sweden but I grew up mostly in Vancouver, Canada.

How did you learn about Minerva?

A few years ago, I moved to India to attend the Mahindra United World College of India, in search of an adventure, a global community, and a range of challenges from which to grow from. As one of fourteen United World Colleges (UWCs), the school brought together students from over 60 countries to live and learn together for the last two years of high school. As my two years were coming to a close, Minerva dropped by India for a visit in the hopes of finding potential students for its Founding Class. After recognizing the similarities between the Minerva mission and the UWC movement, Minerva was intentional about spreading the word through our network. It looked like my adventure was just beginning!

What attracted you to Minerva?

Minerva represented the opportunity to explore a brand new model for education but also to help shape and build it. It was the opportunity to join a group of students that was both exceptionally bright but also bold and intentional about their education. I was ready for a curriculum that was relevant, applicable, and designed in a way that I could remember. At the same time, higher education was ready for a change and I knew that my input at Minerva could be impactful beyond our student body. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we would spend our degrees in seven of the world’s most vibrant cities.

Did you apply to other schools? If so, which ones?

I applied to a few schools in Canada, Sweden, and the U.S. The main contender for Minerva was NYU Shanghai, which promised to be an enriching experience, albeit a more predictable and traditional one. 

What classes are you taking?

At Minerva, all students take the same four cornerstone courses in their first year, each one designed to teach critical thinking, creative thinking, effective communication, and effective interaction. These courses are Formal Analyses, Empirical Analyses, Complex Systems, and Multimodal Communications.

What is your major?

Although we haven’t started our sophomore year courses yet, I plan to major in Business with concentrations in Managing Operational Complexity and Brand Creation and Management.

How has your first year been?

The first year at Minerva was incredibly intense, rewarding, and comfortable all at the same time. Intense because the Founding Class is pivotal in shaping the university, from refining the curriculum to connecting with the cities to thinking critically about the intentionality we incorporate into every aspect. We gave feedback after every class and we spent many nights debating just how sound our pedagogy is. We care tremendously about the potential of our school and it’s directly in our, and higher ed’s, best interests that we build it well. As such, the year was rewarding because we were working together on a collective vision and doing so alongside the most committed faculty and staff. 

What surprised you the most this year?

I think the most surprising aspect of the year was the impressive level of dedication that each member of our community has for supporting each other and propelling our progress. And although the year was a whirlwind of ideas, decisions, and discoveries, it was simultaneously very comfortable because I felt I was in just the right place at the right time.

Do you think this new model can make an impact in higher education?

Earlier this year I attended SXSWedu to speak on a featured panel titled “Higher Education Built by Students for Students”. I spent several days listening to educators, teachers, and administrators as they discussed the problems in education today. I was struck by how similar each person’s problems were but mostly by the fact that Minerva can respond to every one of them. While we still have much work left, we have the ingredients that it takes to impact higher education: a compelling reason behind everything we do and an exceptional group that is both highly capable but also highly committed to our work.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities you see in higher education?

Unfortunately, it is much more challenging for existing institutions to innovate because it can take months to navigate the process of refining a class or there may be friction regarding the population that the school prioritizes (is it student-centric or professor-centric?). Our founder, Ben Nelson, simultaneously made his work much easier and much, much more difficult when he started Minerva from scratch.

With no existing boundaries or bureaucracies, we are free to focus on what truly matters: preparing students to succeed in the 21st century. Thinking through the first principles of a university is refreshing but it’s no easy task to build a college from scratch. I hope that our rethinking will reveal insights and outputs that other schools can embed into their programs. And until then, I hope that all students can think carefully about the impact of their educational choices and the adventures they choose to embark on. 

What are you hoping to do after you graduate?

After graduation, I’m hoping to put my education into practice by building an organization that incorporates education, entrepreneurship, and design and tackles a problem area that I am currently identifying. While studying in India, I founded a social enterprise called Seema through which I am recreating the jewelry experience from artisan to customer. We are currently training and employing over 50 local women from a dozen villages in Maharashtra and are developing our global reach this year. I hope to continue supporting Seema from a more distanced role and to start afresh with another idea.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know? Where can they go to learn more about what you are up to?

Minerva is just getting started! While we had 28 Founding Class students last year, we are preparing to welcome about 115 students this fall. Follow our story on Facebook or Twitter (@MinervaSchools) and look out for us as we connect with the world’s capitals. Readers can learn more at my blog or on Twitter (@lishafred).