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By Giancarlo De León Argueta, Marketing Intern

Will Gagan’s 2021 Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship fellowship with a social enterprise based in Zambia required tenacious adaptability and community-building that culminated in an adaptable Agro-entrepreneurship curriculum. I had the opportunity to interview Will about his fellowship experience and his family’s influence.

Will Gagan SCU ‘22, is a hard-working and passionate student who spent his fellowship helping to build a sustainable and adaptable program for the Emerging Farmers Initiative (EFI) sponsored by the Religious Sisters of the Holy Spirit in Zambia. With a major in Environmental Science and minors in Sustainability and Religious Studies, he’s spent his college career embodying the Jesuit values of Santa Clara University through his classes and experience with Miller Center. Will is one of four members of his family currently studying at Santa Clara, a Bronco lineage that traces back to 1919. His commitment to fighting for equity is deepened by his ability to connect with others and work alongside them, as exhibited by his and William Mockapetris’ SCU ‘22 project with EFI.

Will (3rd from left) with his uncle Mark Gagan, Miller Center Fellow William Mockapetris, and Will’s grandfather Brian Gagan SCU ‘54

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How did you familiarize yourself with the circumstances of the organization you were working with?

Something William and I did pretty early on in our meetings was setting apart some time to get to know the sisters and everyone we were working with personally. We noticed that connecting with them as people made our work as colleagues easier. I remember at the end of one meeting, William and I started talking with one of the team members about soccer and how he was a big Barcelona fan. It became another connection we had to each other and the program. I’m still in contact with them — I texted Sister Junza the other day to congratulate her on an award she recently received. It’s super cool these relationships are still strong. That foundation made me feel more comfortable, especially when working over zoom with people I hadn’t met before. The stakes of the project felt high, and I was nervous. Realizing they were there for us like we were there for them opened me up.

What was your deliverable for EFI? How’d you fulfill it?

The main project EFI needed help with was developing its curriculum. They have this learning center with six different production units that teach rural Zambian youth sustainable agriculture practices and financial literacy to run their farming operations once they graduate from the program. They already had the learning center up and running, but they needed to recruit apprentices and develop a curriculum. That is what we did. We met up with three local experts in agribusiness, business and leadership, and agricultural science over the summer to learn the necessary skills. William and I then structured that information so that the program could teach it to its students.

How do you feel about the work you’ve done? What are you most proud of?

One thing that William and I are really proud of in terms of our final deliverable was that we gave them a living document — that way, they could change it and update it as they got feedback. That is something we struggled with, too — they didn’t have any students yet, so we couldn’t get feedback while we were building it to figure out what worked and what didn’t. We kept that in mind and had to build it in a way so that future teachers could add to it and edit it as they taught. The fact that we created something that will continue to grow and develop is something we were and are proud of. If two years from now, the curriculum is entirely different from what we started with, it would be a dream come true. It’s supposed to evolve. It’s meant to grow to be effective for the students. It’s connected to our mindset shift partway through the project, too — we went from thinking we would have to explain everything and make it cut and dried to creating something open-ended. It was stressful because it wasn’t something we were used to. We had to adapt and learn, and I think we did a good job at it.

Your family has roots in Santa Clara and social activism. How did that influence your experience?

My family has definitely defined my time and connection to Santa Clara. The first person in my family to come here was my great-grandfather, who graduated in 1919, which was 99 years before I started here. He was followed by my grandfather, then my dad, and a number of my aunts and uncles. Santa Clara is actually where my dad and mom met. Now it’s me, my brother, and my two cousins who are all here. It’s very special to me.

I never felt an obligation to come here when I was growing up. It was never really pushed on Nick and me, but my parents always spoke fondly of it. I remember when we both decided to come here, they were super excited. When we had the Miller Center Fellowship presentations, my grandpa, uncle, brother, and cousin came. It was special because my parents couldn’t join, but I could still share it with my family. I know they’re really proud of me. It was great getting to share that with them.

In the context of the fellowship, I would say that the deaths of my grandmas basically bookended my summer with the fellowship. Looking back, it gave it so much more meaning. It created so many challenges in getting my work done for the fellowship, but it was awesome that I had been here for the summer, and I was able to go up and visit my family. William was also so supportive and understanding. He made all the difference with the challenges I faced during this time.

I remember there was this one moment where it all clicked. During my dad’s eulogy at my grandma’s funeral, he told us this story about how she was involved with the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement in the 60s. She wouldn’t let my dad and his siblings eat grapes, joining the national boycott to support better pay and conditions for grape workers. Whenever my dad would be at someone’s house, and he’d get fruit salad, he’d pick out the grapes. Grapes were off-limits until the grape growers finally signed union contracts with the UFW. In his eulogy, my dad said, “It is important to remember that this was not political for Mom. It was human and personal. Mom saw the people she was working with — young husbands and wives, fathers and mothers trying to provide for their families and make their way in the world — the same as she and Dad.” I never forgot that. My grandma on my mom’s side spent her entire career as a teacher, teaching kindergarten for the SFUSD and spending a year abroad in Germany in the 1960s teaching children of military personnel.

When I realized that EFI’s work embodies their values — transformative education and creating good, dignified work for people in agriculture  — it made the project so meaningful to me despite all the challenges. When I told Sister Edna what happened with my grandmas, she said she had heard about it through Keith [Warner, who runs the fellowship]. She was so understanding, and she said they’d been praying for me the whole time. That meant something to me. It made me appreciate the work social entrepreneurs do so much more. It is all about the people. This was the most meaningful moment of the fellowship. I realized how EFI’s work connected to my grandmas’ lives and the special interaction with Sister Edna. The opportunity Miller Center has given me, where I got to continue my grandmas’ legacies and the impact they wanted to make, made me realize that I deserve to be here. I am paying it forward and making a difference. It’s a very good feeling.

What do you think about your connection to Miller Center? What does it mean to you?

I view Miller Center as a web of connections and networks — coalitions of people that are doing different and unique things. The Miller Center is this hub for building these meaningful connections. At the start, I didn’t know the majority of people in my cohort at all. Before the fellowship, I didn’t know William, and it was terrific to work with him. I feel so connected to my cohort, and it’s a community. It’s a challenging process, and there’s so much ambiguity. We have to adapt and be resilient. We all experienced that. That shared experience made me super connected to all of them. I’m so grateful for that. It’s also cool that everyone drawn to Miller Center is completely devoted to the mission. You’re starting from this point of shared values, making everything easier. There were times when William and I had different perspectives or approaches on the project’s direction, but we were both guided by the same ethos. That’s everyone at Miller Center. That’s one of the most meaningful things to me.

When I was a senior in high school, a family friend told me that I should pick a college with values that align with mine. I didn’t understand that at the moment, but now as a senior looking back, I see it. Its been so impactful — talking about injustice, our place in fixing it, promoting equity. Santa Clara’s tenets drive these social elements. Everything that I’ve learned in my classes is helpful, but I appreciate most the value system that Santa Clara has instilled in me. I’m fortunate for that. I got that from Miller Center as well. Miller Center makes it easy to connect with people. Their work addresses huge social issues that can sometimes feel insurmountable. Seeing that there are this many people with the passion and courage to address those issues makes me feel good about the future.

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