Learning in the Global Classroom

A market in the cathedral square in Antigua, Guatemala. Students in the Universitas 21 Social Entrepreneur Corps in Guatemala study abroad program will spend some time in Antigua before fanning out into rural areas to work on projects with local social entrepreneurs. (Stock image)

A market in the cathedral square in Antigua, Guatemala. Students in the Universitas 21 Social Entrepreneur Corps in Guatemala study abroad program will spend some time in Antigua before fanning out into rural areas to work on projects with local social entrepreneurs. (Stock image)

UConn students Emily Anderson ’12 (ENG) and Lhens Vilson ’12 (CLAS) are spending a month this summer studying abroad in Guatemala, and they took two courses in preparation for the trip. But although their instructors were from UConn, their classmates were students living around the world – in Australia, Hong Kong, Mexico, Singapore, and the UK.

The 13 students, all from institutions in the international consortium of research universities known as Universitas 21, learned about social entrepreneurship and Guatemalan politics and culture in the global virtual classroom. They read articles, viewed videos, and discussed the material with each other and with their instructors online. The group met face-to-face for the first time this week in Guatemala.

The Universitas 21 Social Entrepreneur Corps in Guatemala is a new study abroad program open to students at any U21 university this summer, with UConn as the lead institution. Open to students in all disciplines, it is modeled on a successful UConn program established in 2008, and builds on U21 institutions’ expertise in social entrepreneurship, online learning, international collaboration, and service learning.

“This is the first truly global study abroad program where students from around the world are working collaboratively to address one of the great global problems, namely poverty,” says Ross Lewin, executive director of the Office of Global Programs, who initiated the program.

Social entrepreneurship is widely regarded as one of the most effective strategies for lifting people out of poverty. Through the study abroad program, students interested in international development work on site directly with Social Entrepreneur Corps professionals and Guatemalan social entrepreneurs to help grow existing businesses and establish new ones.

Wynd Harris, an assistant professor-in-residence in the marketing department at the Stamford Campus and director of the SCOPE program (Sustainable Community Outreach and Public Engagement) in the School of Business, taught the course on social entrepreneurship and will join the students in Guatemala for part of their stay.

“Regular entrepreneurship is typically for profit,” Harris says. “Social entrepreneurship is to make a positive difference in people’s lives within communities – not for profit, but for social welfare, for the community at large.”

Although she has taught online classes to UConn students before, she says that in preparing for this course she had to take into account the fact that the students came from a wide variety of educational backgrounds. “There are introductory materials included in the course material,” she says, “to get everybody up to a common level of understanding about what it means to be engaged in social entrepreneurship.”

The course on Guatemalan politics and culture was taught by Rebecca Aubrey, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at UConn and adjunct instructor for political science and Latin American studies at the Greater Hartford campus.

Vilson and Anderson say the online discussions were enriched by their classmates’ diverse backgrounds.

“We’ve had pretty good conversations,” says Vilson. “It’s been really interesting having people refer to things that are going on in their own countries,” such as the growth of education in China and the taxation system in Australia.

“[The other students] give different perspectives on issues that I hadn’t thought about that way,” adds Anderson, “… things that I didn’t know about.”

After four weeks of studying economic theories of social entrepreneurship and analyzing case studies, the students arrived this week in Guatemala, where they will see the theories put into practice over the next four weeks. They will stay with local families, learn some Spanish, visit non-profit organizations, and observe social entrepreneurs at work.

They will then be paired in teams with local residents to work on social entrepreneurship projects. Although they don’t yet know the specific projects they’ll be assigned to, some examples of projects that students in the UConn Guatemala program have worked on include conducting eye exams and selling reading glasses to Guatemalan women who weave for their livelihoods; educating people about the benefits of water filters; and demonstrating how wood stoves are safer and more economical than cooking over an open fire.

Harris says the program benefits both the students and the Guatemalan people.

“The students develop first-hand knowledge of what it takes to be entrepreneurial in a developing economy,” she says, “and the involvement of student teams there results in the development of new products to serve the population in Guatemala.”

Vilson, a double major in political science and economics, says he chose the program because he was inspired by the work of the Social Entrepreneur Corps. “I am interested in working to relieve poverty in the world,” says Vilson, whose family is from Haiti, “and there is much to learn by participating in this program.”

After graduating in December, he hopes to work in international development, and says the program will give him not only knowledge but experience that will serve him well in his future career. “One of my future goals is to one day return to Haiti and use the knowledge and skills I have learned to help it grow economically,” he says.

Anderson, a chemical engineering major who will graduate in August, says she hopes to use her engineering background in economic development work, to promote development and sustainability abroad.

“This program gives me the business aspect of it,” she says. “You need a strong business background for engineering programs to take off. The two go hand-in-hand.”

The 13 U21 students will meet again online in October, for a Virtual Global Symposium to discuss their experiences and results.

The students in the U21 Guatemala program are blogging from the field. You can follow their experiences as they unfold, by clicking on this link: http://today.uconn.edu/letters-from-guatemala/

Update July 10: In an email from Guatemala, Greg Van Kirk, co-founder of the Social Entrepreneur Corps, wrote:

“… just wanted to give you the great news that this past weekend, the U21 students participated in our MOST successful village campaign since we started our work almost ten years ago. They supported a number of women entrepreneurs in the Jutiapa region and in one day served over 150 people and helped the women to sell 69 pairs of glasses, 35 eye drops, 30 packets of vegetable seeds, 8 solar lamps/cell phone chargers and one water purification bucket. Truly amazing! That amounts to hundreds of beneficiaries served in one day, when you take into account the impact that these solutions have on families. And the women entrepreneurs earned nearly $240 in net profits. That is equal to over two months wages for the average rural Guatemalan.

… our team has been loving working with the group and has nothing but glowing reviews for their attitude, effort, and performance.”