Kelly Garner, a teacher at Point Option Alternative school in Newport News, raved about the recent Community Problem Solving Challenge co-sponsored by Old Dominion University's Strome College of Business.

"As a social studies teacher, I seek ways to engage students that are relevant and help them develop their agency to shape their world and build a meaningful future," Garner said. "The social entrepreneurship challenge from ODU checked all of those boxes, and it was inspiring to see students collaborating to tackle social issues in creative new ways. I can't wait for next year!"

This year's event was also co-hosted by the Brooks Crossing Innovation and Opportunity Center and Newport News Public Schools. It brought together six high school students who were admitted into the program to work with four ODU Enactus/Strome College students - Angela Darling, Hunter Denson, Victor Prince and Josh St. John - to develop entrepreneurial solutions to two problems identified by community leaders.

Before beginning the challenge part of the program, the students attended workshops on social entrepreneurship, community problem solving and design thinking by Strome College faculty, including Jay O'Toole and Connie Merriman. After completing the workshops, students were presented two current community challenges - building opioid epidemic awareness among high school students and food deserts - identified by leaders from the Newport News Police Department and Newport News Choice Neighborhood Initiative.

"When we engage Strome faculty and students in addressing community problems, we're also building entrepreneurial skills in the high school students we work with, and our students also learn valuable lessons," said Jeff Tanner, dean of the Strome College. "And, our students also connect with our community, helping them find opportunities to stay and thrive here."

Students worked under the mentorship of Enactus students to develop and pitch possible solutions to a panel of teachers and community leaders. The winning team proposed a basketball tournament with high school students, community members, Newport News Public Schools' resource officers and Newport News police officers to build trust between community and police and raise funds for opioid treatment programs. The students and Newport News police are expected to execute this proposal.

The enthusiasm generated by the project has led to discussions to develop a program for the fall with students at Point Option Alternative and scale up the program to include other schools in the region.

Over the past two years, this program evolved out of a social entrepreneurship course taught by Merriman, associate dean at the Strome College of Business. The course, hosted by the Perry Honors College, is linked to the ODU Enactus student organization with members of that group participating along with the students who registered for the course.

The program is funded for four years by a grant from the E.M. Kauffman Foundation. Anil Nair, chair of the Department of Management, took the lead in securing that grant.

"This program aligns well with the management department's transitional entrepreneurship initiative," Nair said.

He added that he was pleased the Kauffman Foundation funded the initiative because Merriman's program is a win for all partners.

"Strome students and Enactus members gained valuable insights into problems faced by our communities and developed leadership skills by mentoring the high school students; the high school students developed design thinking and entrepreneurial skills, along with a 'can-do' mindset to address problems in their communities," Nair said. "Additionally, the students forged connections with ODU faculty and students, developing possible pathways to college, and the community leaders are pleased with the involvement of students and faculty to address challenges they feel need broader awareness and support."

A number of people helped to make the program a success during COVID. Among them were Mia Joe, director of the Brooks Crossing Innovation Center, who identified community leaders, teachers and counselors in the school district; Garner and Elizabeth Aultice (Achievable Dream Academy) of Newport News Public Schools; LaMonte Williams, Newport News Choice Neighborhoods Initiative Community Advisory Committee president; Yugonda Sample Jones, founder/president of My EmPowerment (; Sgts. Michael Goss and Randy Rajkumar from the Newport News Police Department; and Chris Willis, a Ph.D. student in strategic management at the Strome College, who brought his background in teaching in several school systems to ensure efficient execution of the program.

"It was a great experience taking part in this project," Rajkumar said. "Community building and youth are important in today's society, not just in community policing and engagement. This project gave some of our youth and future leaders in our communities the chance to implement real ideas and solutions to community problems and connections. Observing firsthand the power of positive thinking by our youth was refreshing and reassuring in our community-building efforts."

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