What did you do on your summer vacation? For students at Winter Park's Rollins College, the answers include launching an eco-lodge project in Tanzania, founding a company that creates energy from waste and helping women in a South African village start a profitable baking business.

Though college students have been derided as apathetic in years past, Rollins is increasingly pushing its young minds to learn not just about making a living, but also about making a difference. And students appear to be embracing the movement.

"Rollins is making a commitment to educating our students for social change," said Chrissy Garton, the school's new director of social innovation. "And we're finding there is an extraordinary demand for that."

From service-learning projects led by professors to students serving internships at humanitarian organizations, the growing effort is gaining global recognition. On Thursday, the private liberal-arts institution was designated a "Changemaker Campus" by the nonprofit Ashoka, the world's largest network of social entrepreneurs.

The award is "the equivalent of an Oscar or Nobel Prize for social change and impact," said Marina Kim, an Ashoka representative who spoke at a celebration of the achievement. Rollins is the first university in Florida and one of only 15 internationally — including Duke, Cornell and Johns Hopkins — to earn the honor.

Last year, the college's Crummer Graduate School of Business began teaching a course on social entrepreneurship: the concept of taking business principles and using them to solve societal problems. Soon, the idea's power and popularity made it a campuswide initiative.

For students such as 21-year-old Lucas Hernandez, a senior, the move merely formalized a message he'd started learning from Rollins before he even set foot on campus. As an incoming freshman three years ago, he signed up for a professor's trip to Costa Rica, where his group of a dozen students saw firsthand the conflicts between low-income farmers struggling to make a living and eco-tourism boosters seeking to preserve wilderness.

"It opened my mind to so many things," Hernandez said. "I saw that along with the beauty of this ecological paradise came all these complexities. It energized me to get involved."

For a self-described child of privilege, it also shifted his ambition. He spent every Saturday morning of his freshman year helping to share food in downtown Orlando with the less fortunate. He spent his spring break in Washington, D.C., with anti-hunger workers and at a camp for special-needs children. He also changed his major from psychology to international relations.

"When I first came to Rollins, I was very unsure of what I wanted to do. I didn't really have a path," he said. "But the experience I had in Costa Rica — that was the spark."

Now he is starting a microfinance program on campus to help low-income communities while applying for a Fulbright scholarship and studying for the law-school entrance exam. Whatever he eventually does for a living, he said, it will have to include "giving back to the community."

Sam Barns, who graduated in spring with his MBA, had a similar epiphany standing at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in 2010. On summer break that year, Barns realized the only lodgings near the mountain were budget places or expensive, big-box hotels — "neither of which encourage interaction with local people or have much impact on the local economy." He began forging plans to build an eco-lodge that would eventually be run by the locals.

At 23, he is working half-time in the construction industry back home in Maine so he can continue his dedication to the project. So far, he has raised about 20 percent of the capital needed, and he hopes to return to Tanzania in the next month to meet with foreign embassies interested in funding the remainder.

"At Rollins, I took a lot of international politics, international-relations classes, and those got me thinking about how I can make a difference in the world in a positive way," he said. "I had a lot of support from the faculty."

Some of his professors, in fact, are now on his board of advisers.

Rollins President Lewis Duncan sees Hernandez and Barns as precisely the type of world-changers his college wants to help produce. And though social entrepreneurship is growing globally — students at Stetson University in DeLand, for instance, regularly serve with local nonprofits to help them operate more effectively — Rollins may have the longest tradition.

"The idea really took root with Hamilton Holt, our eighth president and a world-renowned peace advocate, who started in 1925," Duncan said. "When he came to Rollins, he brought this mission that the purpose of education is to liberate the minds of our students so that they're not just informed spectators but engaged participants in the world around them."

Duncan also perceives a shift in student attitudes from one of cynicism to hopefulness. A recent campus survey on social entrepreneurship showed that more than 80 percent of students want to learn more about the idea.

Advocates are careful to point out, though, that doesn't mean the current generation is self-sacrificing. As sophomore Lindokuhle Ngwenya, a 20-year-old math major from South Africa, discovered, helping people has its perks. After volunteering at an AIDS clinic and tutoring local high-school students struggling with algebra, she came away with more than a new set of skills.

"It just made me feel really good," she said.

ksantich@tribune.com or 407-420-5503