Rochester College students explore local organizations with help from SMART

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published March 15, 2016


ROCHESTER — Rochester College launched its first class in social entrepreneurship in January, giving students interested in solving societal problems insight into how local organizations are making a positive impact on society.

The class was developed by Center for Social Entrepreneurship Director Jaymes Vettraino, who also serves as an assistant professor at the college. Vettraino said he envisioned the class to be an experiential learning opportunity for students, where they would visit and have full access to various local nonprofits, for-profits and government organizations.

Vettraino knew he could easily teach the students about national organizations in class, but in order for them to really understand the passion of social-impact professionals, he felt they needed to see them in action, with their clients and in their physical space.

“We have a great book that we are working through, but I really had this vision — for at least the first academic class — to get the students out into the community and go to these nonprofits that I had either built a relationship with through my time with the city or had built a relationship over the fall months before kicking off the new class,” said the former Rochester city manager. “I don’t think we can get what the world is doing out of a book.”

But Vettraino quickly learned that transporting his 19 students to the various regional social-value organizations would be a challenge.

That’s where the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, or SMART, stepped in. Although Rochester College is located in Rochester Hills, which is an “opt-out” community for SMART’s public transit bus service, SMART agreed to assist in transportation for the students.

Madonna Van Fossen, SMART Oakland County ombudsman, said SMART is committed to helping students achieve their educational goals. She explained that the organization, which also agreed to serve as a host organization for an experiential learning visit, believes the new social entrepreneurship class is a way to highlight the importance of public transit and the benefits to the region.

John C. Hertel, general manager of SMART, said the organization understands that public transit plays an important role in southeast Michigan, in the economy, and in attracting and retaining young people to live, work and play in the area.

“By giving these students the opportunity to experience firsthand the work of the agencies and organizations that provide critical human services, we help to broaden their exposure of potential places to work that make a difference in people’s lives,” he said in a statement.

In mid-February, Vettraino said, the students visited the SMART Oakland County Terminal to learn about the social value of public transportation and the approach SMART is taking to address the region’s transportation needs. SMART was the class’s third experiential learning opportunity of the semester. Previous visits included Leader Dogs for the Blind and Forgotten Harvest. This spring, Vettraino said, students will visit Lighthouse of Oakland County, the city of Rochester Hills, Missions Me, Grace Centers for Hope, Daniel Brian Associates, the Community Housing Network and Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County.

During each visit, the students are asked to absorb as much information as possible about the operation, adding to the foundational information they were required to learn about the organizations before each trip. Post-visit, Vettraino said, students complete an assignment called an “Idea Log” — which is then given directly to each organization — to provide meaningful, entrepreneurial ideas for how each organization can deepen its mission and improve financial sustainability.

“Now that we are actually going to these places, it has been everything that I imagined it to be, for both sides,” Vettraino said. “I think it is even better for the nonprofits and local governments that we visited than I anticipated, in that the Idea Logs that students have provided really are a focus group of millennials for them to get … access to 19- to 21-year-olds’ ideas and thoughts after those folks have already done the research on the service that they are providing and they have heard from the professionals themselves.”

Vettraino said he has gotten such great feedback from the students and the organizations that he plans to offer the class again in the fall.

The Bachelor of Business Administration degree in social entrepreneurship prepares students to apply principles from business to help create or manage a venture that addresses challenging social issues.

To learn more about Rochester College’s social entrepreneurship degree, contact Jaymes Vettraino at