For freshman Njeri Warrington, studying abroad seemed an elusive consideration for her senior year of college. With the academic demands of an International Business and Marketing double major, Spanish minor and the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Honors Program, Warrington’s focus was on completing credit requirements.
But then she learned about the Maryland Social Entrepreneur Corps (MSEC) – an 8 week summer internship abroad focused on social entrepreneurship. MSEC sends undergraduate students to the Dominican Republic, Ecuador or Nicaragua to help combat poverty by supporting small community-based businesses.
MSEC is both an internship as well as an academic program – a major selling point for Warrington. She could study abroad and earn 9 credits toward her business majors and Spanish minor, staying on track for graduation. Excited by this new possibility, Warrington applied for the Nicaragua program and was one of eight students accepted.
The program started in Spring with a prep course that met once a week. The course introduced students to the culture of their respective destination countries, reviewed the work of the previous year’s participants and covered the fundamentals of social entrepreneurship.
In June, Warrington’s group left for Nicaragua and joined students from two other U.S. Universities. The first two weeks were spent preparing to work in the field. Students took Spanish classes and reviewed case studies with the MSEC regional directors. Warrington was already prepared to communicate in a different language, but the training also helped her adapt to a different culture. “The way we solve problems in America doesn’t always apply to the way we solve them in other countries,” explained Warrington.
For the remaining six weeks, Warrington’s team conducted market research, assessing the needs of the community for permanent retail stores that could sell ‘quality of life’ products, such as eye glasses, solar lamps and water filtration systems. The students educated community members about such products (many of whom had never used goods of this kind before) and trained them on how to market and sell these items. “There were a few times when things got really difficult,” said Warrington. “But my team kept an open mind and instead of taking something as a challenge, we looked at it as a learning experience.”
After Warrington and the other students of the Nicaragua group returned home, they connected with their peers who traveled to the Dominican Republic and Ecuador. Together, the students planned the final segment of the MSEC program – a symposium to showcase their experience. “Everyone had a really good time working together on the symposium. We had the chance to hear the experiences of students who went to the Dominican Republic and Ecuador and compare them to our own.”
The students also met with Greg Van Kirk, Executive Director of Community Enterprise Solutions – the in-country partner of MSEC– about the positive impact the students made. “Much of our work didn’t have an immediate impact,” explains Warrington. “We trusted that it was there, but there were only a few moments where you could really see that someone was thankful for what we were doing.” Van Kirk explained how the student’s work was already having a lasting impact on the communities they served.
During the symposium, Warrington and her fellow students shared how MSEC helped build infrastructure for economic opportunity in the communities they visited, and the impact the program had on them personally. MSEC students developed strong connections among each other, and were deeply affected by the distinctive experience of working in a Latin American country. “We were out in the field talking to people that lived in houses that were more like big, dark huts. Their endless hospitality gave us all a deep respect for their culture.”
Now a sophomore, Warrington has studied abroad, added internship experience to her resume and is on track to finish her double major and minor on time. “[MSEC] is awesome! That’s all I can really say about it.”
Applications for the 2015 program are open until March 1. Register today. The Maryland Social Entrepreneur Corps is supported by Education Abroad, the Robert H. Smith School of Business, and the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.