UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When it comes to social change, Kate Ortbal doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty, whether that’s in the dry clay of a rural village in Honduras or in the depths of computer databases at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.
The Schreyer Honors College senior has brought that same dig-in-and-get-it-done approach to her academic pursuits. Ortbal chose not to study in an established program in just one of Penn State’s academic colleges but instead brought together areas in two colleges -- Engineering and Agricultural Sciences -- to focus on social entrepreneurship.
“Being in Schreyer has played a big role in this,” she said. “Because I’m in the SHC, people who have helped me along the way have had faith in my dedication and commitment to what I’m trying to do.”
Ortbal got the idea after attending a conference at Yale about social entrepreneurship, a concept that most often takes the form of for-profit groups pushing for social improvements.
“The main goal of social entrepreneurship is to create social value, but there’s also an emphasis on profitability and scalability,” she said. “I loved this model and couldn’t find a major at Penn State that focused on it, so I knew that if I wanted to be able to do exactly what I wanted, I would have to make my own curriculum.”
Many of her classes initially fell within the Community, Environment, and Development (CED) major in the College of Agricultural Sciences, where she learned about international development, then she transitioned into the College of Engineering where she became involved in the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) certificate program. She has also taken classes within the business, economics and geography departments toward earning a Bachelor of Philosophy degree this spring.“It’s really incredible to have completely designed my own education,” Ortbal said. “I knew what I wanted to learn, but this gave me a opportunity to meet the people who could make that happen.”
However, it wasn’t until she went to a rural community in Honduras over spring break of her sophomore year that she knew what she wanted her focus to be.
“I went to Honduras as a student interested in business, management or marketing,” Ortbal said. “I came back interested in pushing social missions, and in that way, it really did change the path of what I was doing in school.”
The trip to Honduras was her first to a developing country, and her goal was to work on building water systems in a community. Together with her Global Water Brigades team, she worked directly with local community members to figure out what kinds of water systems would work best for them.
“For Honduras, we figured out that it’s often an issue of water quality and access, not availability,” Ortbal said. “It’s mountainous and there are many fresh water sources, but water flows freely and isn’t piped into villages in an organized way, and by the time it gets to the village, it’s not clean.”
Knowing the situation in the community, the team identified water sources, dug trenches and laid pipes that would take water into the community. Then, they installed taps in the community that would allow citizens to access the water.
In the process, Ortbal learned a lot about how to identify a community’s needs and use her own resources to help others.
“I realized how privileged I really am, personally and academically, being able to go to a place like Penn State,” she said. “I started thinking about how I could leverage some of that privilege in order to create social value and contribute to improve the lives of other people.”
Last year, Ortbal was the president of Penn State’s Global Water Brigades chapter. Over the 2012 winter break, she organized a trip to Africa and took 20 students from State College to Ghana, where the group installed rainwater collectors.
In contrast to her trip to Honduras, in which she was only doing manual labor, the trip to Ghana required Ortbal to take on a lot of organizational responsibilities, too.