Aug 182015

EcuadorThe Maryland Social Entrepreneur Corps (MSEC) is a unique study and internship program for UMD students to learn about and work directly with emerging economies in Latin America. Students travel to the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, or Nicaragua and focus on creating sustainable entrepreneurial solutions to complex challenges. Earlier this summer we connected with Rachel George, an undergraduate student who just got back from her travels to Ecuador through MSEC, about her experience with the program. Here’s what she had to say:

George: I grew up in Maryland, and this fall I will begin my senior year at UMD, majoring in both English and Marketing. I’m a photographer for the Diamondback, a member of the QUEST honors program, lead designer for the QUEST Marketing Team, Creative Director of the startup Meta Cartel and vice president of the Black Belt Club. When I graduate I plan to work in User Experience or User Interface Design, and eventually plan to have some international component to my career.

I learned about MSEC through the QUEST Facebook page. I initially didn’t plan to apply, but the more I thought about it the more I wanted to do something different with my summer. The MSEC program presented an opportunity to see a new country (and continent), and to learn how to help people in a new way. I traveled to Ecuador and was able to explore three different regions of the country. We spent the first two weeks in Cuenca, which is a beautiful major city. Over the subsequent six weeks we traveled to Pulinguí, a small village close to Riobamba in the north, Ñamarin, a small town near Saraguro in the south, and Timbara, also in the south.

The transition from Maryland to Ecuador was smooth. I enjoyed the differences of this new country, like the countless juices they drink with their meals — blackberry, strawberry, guava, passion fruit, tomate de arból (“tree tomato”), and even cantaloupe juice! The biggest adjustment was adapting to my rural homestay in the village of Pulinguí. It was very cold because of the altitude — almost 10,000 feet — and every morning we awoke to see the Chimborazo volcano looming over us. My host mom had 9 baby pigs, two grown pigs, 15 guinea pigs (which are a major delicacy; they taste a bit like super salty turkey meat), 6 bunnies, a cow, a llama, and a donkey. She would take the animals out to pasture every morning and bring them back every evening by 6pm. We ate dinner by 7pm and went to bed by 8pm.  In such a small, remote (and cold!) village there’s not much to do at night but sleep. The lifestyle was certainly different than what I am accustomed to in Maryland.

During my two-month stay in Ecuador I worked on a wood stove project for the Social Entrepreneur Corps (SE Corps). The SE Corps designed a healthier and more efficient version of the wood stove, and my team and I were  focused on 1) creating a model for distributing and installing the stoves in regions where they are most needed, and 2) designing a viable payment plan option so that more families could invest in the $200 stove (many families cannot afford that type of up-front cost; and, those who can least afford it are also those who could benefit most). Many people in rural Ecuador cook indoors, on wood stoves without chimney ventilation, or over open fire pits. The smoke can cause serious health problems, especially for the eyes and lungs. Our stove, the Andean wood stove, uses a chimney to vent the smoke out and away from the house, and burns the wood more efficiently. It’s a simple innovations, but an important one.

Our feasibility assessment took on an even greater level of importance when we learned that gas prices will increase in 2016 across all of Ecuador. The majority of families use gas stoves and a tank of gas, which lasts about a week for a family of four, costs $2.50. In 2016, a single tank will cost at least $25. This incredible price increase will force many families to look for alternatives, and for those who cannot afford electric, wood stoves become the only option. So it was really important that we develop a successful plan to distribute these stoves, and make them affordable as possible. The Andean stove project has been under evaluation for a number of years, and this is the final year of assessment. If our model for implementation our team designed turns out not to be viable, then SE Corps will likely drop the Andean stove project all together. The country director has our recommendations in hand. We do not yet know if the project will move forward, but there’s optimism that the stove project will extend for another year to help with the 2016 price increase transition.

The MSEC experience helped introduce me to the world of international development and the challenges nonprofits face when operating in other countries. While in Ecuador we dealt with many important logistical, interpersonal, and ethical decisions;  from those experiences I realized the significance of always putting people first – in whatever career I choose. We learned to make decisions quickly and how to create usable, adaptable solutions.  In doing so I gained valuable communication skills and confidence in how to produce solid work fast. These are things I can take with me and apply to the remainder of my education, and my future career.

I would advise anyone interested in the MSEC program to talk with Jenn Precht (coordinator for MSEC), review the Education Abroad website and the Social Entrepreneur Corps website, or reach out to me directly! I am happy to share more about my experience. For future students of MSEC, I encourage you to ask questions — to leadership, to your fellow interns, to your mentors, and to the people in the organizations you work with in-country. Learn as much as you can about your projects, about the campaigns, about why you are there in the first place. The more you know, the better able you will be to produce work that truly helps people. And, take advantage of the opportunity to immerse yourself in the people around you. MSEC was an excellent opportunity to learn about social innovation and to get a glimpse of what it would truly take to follow a path of international development work. I am incredibly grateful for the experience!

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