Through Design Thinking, Zahin Mahbuba ’22 Seeks to Transform the World – One Person at a Time

Zahin Mahbuba '22

Zahin Mahbuba ’22 has enjoyed an especially memorable – and impactful – senior year at Hollins.

During the 2021-22 academic session, the international studies major and economics minor from Bangladesh furthered her aspiration of becoming a trendsetter at Hollins and beyond through the University Innovation Fellows (UIF) program sponsored by Stanford University’s Hass Plattner Institute of Design (d.school).

UIF empowers student leaders to help their peers build the creative confidence and entrepreneurial mindset needed to address global challenges. “It is absolutely life changing,” said Mahbuba, who was accepted into the program last fall after successfully completing UIF’s rigorous application process with her faculty sponsor, Assistant Professor of Political Science Courtney Chenette. She remotely completed UIF’s four-week training program, where she learned “how you can build stuff, how you gather resources, how you get people on board.”

Mahbuba and Chenette spent the next several months focusing on how immigrant populations and refugees often become entrepreneurs after arriving in America or other Western countries, an innovative mindset that Mahbuba thought could be used to develop experiential learning opportunities for Hollins students. “How can you create things in your environment and ecosystem that don’t exist yet, but you know should be there?” she summarized in an October 2021 interview.

To that end, Mahbuba served as a student success leader for the Fall Term 2021 first-year seminar “Sustainability and Social Innovation,” where she engaged in a design-thinking framework. “One of my major goals last semester was to get as many people as I could to understand design thinking, especially in our first-year seminar where that was our entire focus,” she explained.

University Innovation Fellows
Zahin Mahbuba ’22 (second from left) traveled to Stanford in March.

Supported by a $5,500 grant she received when she was honored last summer with Hollins’ first-ever Changemaker Award for entrepreneurship, Mahbuba’s UIF experience culminated this March when she traveled to Stanford with Chenette to spend five days working with a cohort of 200 people from around the world. “This was a bunch of students my age in college who have amazing ideas and are doing amazing things. If you just left them in a room or in the school for a year, I think they could literally change the world.” She also got to meet professors from d.school who, even though they were from different departments and represented different disciplines, “all shared a strong belief in how design can be an agent for change.”

From the beginning, Mahbuba said, the UIF sessions “put innovation in the space of understanding how it can benefit communities.” Mahbuba’s group was given the task of solving a real-life problem for a rural family with financial restrictions that suffered from asthma. “One of the students created an inexpensive air pollution detector that you can put in your room to measure air quality. It can alert the family to open a window, turn on a fan, or just stop cooking for a couple of hours. Another team I met developed a software program that was installed in a village that had never had an internet connection. Through that, they were able to provide internet access to children for remote schooling.”

She noted that innovation “doesn’t always look like a product. It can be changing a specific system or working toward affordably helping people in the community.”

Mahbuba presented to her cohort her passion for “relearning how to learn. It’s about educational systems and how things are not always in silos. In order for design thinking to become the next transformative tool in the world, we have to integrate learning beginning at a very young age. By the time we get to college, we’re already trying to figure out how to connect the dots and we miss out on what the bigger picture looks like. You walk out of a math class and into an English class with no focus on connecting what you’ve learned from math and how that might relate to English.” If such a mindset is adopted, she concluded, it becomes easier to “understand the situational problems that we face on a day-to-day basis.”

University Innovation Fellows at Stanford
Assistant Professor of Political Science Courtney Chenette (left) and Zahin Mahbuba ’22 on the Stanford campus.

The students in Mahbuba’s cohort were creative and driven. The sessions in which she participated were intense. But, she emphasized that “nothing about this was competition. Our competition was to beat the problem we were facing. We had to actively and continuously work together to find simple solutions, and we shared this worldly view of what we can do to better the community.”

Nevertheless, the UIF program sought to balance the often-frenetic schedule. “There were many opportunities for self-reflection and mindfulness,” Mahbuba said. “We did one activity where we just went outside, laid down on the grass, and looked at the sky. It taught me to see the beauty of slowing down. When you do that, you see things more for what they are. Hustling 24/7 actually wears you down and keeps you from completing meaningful work.”

 

Mahbuba said she has come out of the UIF program with an even greater appreciation for making impressions on a personal level. “Impacting one life at a time is something. It’s developing relationships with communities and people to implement transformative change instead of thinking, ‘Oh, this is an entire population I need to help.’ Being able to go to Stanford and work with these people and at the same time work on an individual basis with communities and families and households has shown me that impact starts with bite-size pieces. It’s how these people can benefit and then take the opportunity to develop that even more.”

Recently inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, Mahbuba has been accepted into graduate school programs at the University of Pennsylvania, Emory University, Northeastern University, and Florida International University. However, she’s decided to defer going to grad school. “The programs in which I am interested center mostly around educational development and a process toward a lot of institutionalized change,” she explained. “They require fieldwork above and beyond the internship experiences that I’ve had at Hollins. So, I think its important for me to join the workforce for a year. One of the companies I’m pursuing is a legal firm that works with marginalized communities on educational and legal development, an area I’m very interested in.”

At the same time, Mahbuba is actively working with Chenette on making the UIF program an ongoing opportunity for future generations on campus. “I don’t want this to be a one-off thing for me. We’d like the next cohort to contain a group of Hollins students who are innovative thinkers with diverse backgrounds.”