The 21 Day Challenge at University of Canterbury

In 2015 and 2016, students from across disciplines at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand have the opportunity to positively impact a specific community in the Asia Pacific region. The project, which takes place over 21 days, I spoke with Sussie Morrish, the project lead, about the challenge.

Introduce the 21 Day Challenge and how it came about

The 21 Day International Challenge is an initiative undertaken by the College of Business and Law. The initiative involves a group of students selected to work on a project over 21 days that positively impacts a community. The challenge was designed to align with the pillars of the graduate profile by helping the students in the competition to become globally aware; engaged with their community; employable; innovative and enterprising; as well as mastering their chosen academic discipline.

What are the key features of the programme and how does it work. 

Each team is made up of 5 students from a different College at the university. Students have to apply to be part of the project. They each have a business mentor to help guide them with their plan and have access to an academic advisor from each College to provide expert advice as well as a cultural mentor who knows the country and community well. Teams get to make a weekly phone call to the local community to help direct them. Over 21 days, groups of students work to identify critical issues, prioritise them, develop a proposal and present it. They decide themselves how they will drive the project and use the mentors. Throughout they are given quite a bit of information about the communities they will be working with.

After 21 days, each team pitches their plans to a judging panel. They are judged based on contextual and cultural sensitivity, community involvement and consultation and expert involvement, whether the solution is technically feasible in the time frame available for implementation and considers post implementation (training, maintenance, monitoring etc.). They are also judged on the potential positive impact, the students’ ability to consider both the negative and positive intended and unintended impacts as well as the budget.

What is the impact of this Challenge on the local communities?

The winning team gets to travel to the location and implement their plan. While there, they usually partner with local organizations such as local government and schools that are able to help them and also help monitor the projects and take ownership for them once the students leave.

We have had two challenges so far. In 2015 30 students were selected to devise an affordable and sustainable project for Tarong, a small village in Central Philippines that was hard-hit by typhoon Haiyan in November 2013. They were given a budget of $5000. Bee Team won for their environmental and commercial idea to reintroduce native bees to the area because many of the bees had disappeared after the typhoons. They partnered wit the University of Philippines to help with the training and monitoring of the project after the students left. Each student was also required to write a blog about their experiences.

A second team partnered with an elementary school in San Dionisio, Iloilo and Cabiokid for a Green Library project that involved planting a large permaculture garden with native edible trees and plants.

In 2016 the challenge was to assist the Niuean community to conserve, protect and sustainably manage its food supply with a view to becoming self-sufficient. The overall budget given was $10,000NZD. During this challenge student teams had access to engineers and project experts who were able to answer questions about the viability of their business ideas. The winners proposed the publication of a cookbook, the building of a traditional Taumafa kitchen with “umu” pits and engaging with organic farmers and community leaders to take ownership of the project. The students helped build the kitchen with community involvement. Primary school helped paint it.

Many of the teams go abroad. Are there any projects that focus on local challenges within New Zealand?

This initiative is an international challenge specifically to help our students become globally aware of issues outside of New Zealand. The university has different programmes that address local issues such as The Kaikoura Challenge which was in partnership with New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA) to help businesses and residents in Kaikoura that was badly affected by the earthquakes due to road and infrastructure damage caused by the 2016 earthquakes.

What have been some of the challenges? 

All the students that have participated in the challenge report that this is one of, if not, the highlight of their university study. Much as it would be good to have as many students participate and have the experience, resources are limited. It requires a high level of commitment for both staff, students and mentors in terms of time and resources. Health and safety considerations are also a concern given there is duty of care when taking students overseas.


Business mentors and sponsors continue to show interest in being part of this project. The students get so much out of it. There was also a lot of media interest in both locations during the projects which was a great additional experience for the students.

What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?

For those thinking of doing a similar project, I recommend finding a champion who will have oversight of the whole project and given the appropriate support. No doubt the coordination of the many people involved in this type of challenge eats up a lot of work hours and require dedication.


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