In the morn­ings, the stu­dents were curious learners, studying the ins and outs of micro­fi­nance and eco­nomic devel­op­ment in Latin America at the Santo Domingo Insti­tute of Tech­nology. In the after­noons, they were unpaid con­sul­tants, sur­veying clients of Esper­anza Inter­na­tional, a leading micro­credit orga­ni­za­tion, and writing qual­i­ta­tive reports for the nonprofit's chief finan­cial officer.

It was May and some 30 under­grad­u­ates were working their way through the first two weeks of the Social Enter­prise Institute's month­-long inter­na­tional field study pro­gram to Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­ni­ties like these, built on the prin­ci­ples of the Grameen Bank model of micro­fi­nance, give stu­dents the chance to take global ser­vice to a new level through cul­tural immersion.“I'm really inter­ested in under­standing micro­fi­nance within the con­text of Latin Amer­ican and the Caribbean,” said Katherine Panay­otov, SSH'15. “This pro­gram was the per­fect way to under­stand how the field works and how inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tions imple­ment changes in coun­tries that are trying to get out of poverty.”

Indeed, SEI is grounded in the belief that busi­ness can be a pow­erful tool in helping to alle­viate poverty in the devel­oping world. The insti­tute was founded in 2007 by Dennis Shaugh­nessy, an exec­u­tive pro­fessor of inno­va­tion and entre­pre­neur­ship in the D'Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness. In 2008, he started run­ning field study pro­grams to South Africa and the Dominican Republic and spear­headed this spring's pro­gram with Gordon Adomdza, an assis­tant aca­d­emic spe­cialist of entre­pre­neur­ship and innovation.

The pair designed the pro­gram in accor­dance with Northeastern's edu­ca­tion model, which inte­grates class­room study with pro­fes­sional expe­ri­ence. “In class, we give the stu­dents the theories,”Adomdza said. “In the field, they val­i­date those theories.”

As a case in point, the stu­dents trav­eled to El Caño, a rural com­mu­nity in the Monte Plata region of the Dominican Republic. There the group sur­veyed some 20 impov­er­ished women, gauging their interest in working for a sewing coop­er­a­tive aimed at building sus­tain­able eco­nomic growth.

This past spring, Panay­otov helped design a busi­ness model for the coop­er­a­tive. Later this month, Dominican Republic native Richard Ng, DMSB'17, will travel to El Caño to con­tinue working on the project.

“El Caño is iso­lated and eco­nomic activity is vir­tu­ally non-​​existent,” Panay­otov explained. “The sewing coop­er­a­tive gives these women a way to apply their skills to gen­erate a sus­tain­able form of income.”

When Panay­otov and her peers weren't con­sulting with fledg­ling entre­pre­neurs, they were vol­un­teering in other ways. In mid-​​May, the young human­i­tar­ians vis­ited two sites—a church called Mis­sion Emanuel and a fair-​​trade clothing com­pany called Alta Gracia Apparel, which sup­plies T-​​shirts to Northeastern's book­store. There they offered free eye exams to some 350 com­mu­nity mem­bers and dis­trib­uted reading glasses pro­vided by Vision Spring, a non­profit partner of the field study program.

“We weren't curing blind­ness, but it was an amazing expe­ri­ence to watch as the com­mu­nity mem­bers tried on glasses for the first time,” said Miranda Beggin, DMSB'17, who helped design eye exam training mate­rials in Shaughnessy's impact investing course this past spring. “Most of these people had never been able to afford glasses.”

After com­pleting the com­mu­nity ser­vice project, the stu­dents trav­eled to Havana, the cap­ital city of Cuba. They stayed for one week, touring a country that only recently opened its bor­ders to out­side invest­ment and speaking with sev­eral Cubans, including an econ­o­mist who reg­u­larly con­sults with Raul Castro, Cuba's head of state.

Adomdza, who led this por­tion of the pro­gram, asked the stu­dents to design two empathy maps of the life of the average Cuban–one before the start of the week­long expe­ri­ence and one after. What does the country's typ­ical cit­izen think and feel? What does he say and do? How does the hypoth­esis com­pare with the reality?

The find­ings sur­prised the stu­dents, many of whom had pre­dicted that the typ­ical Cuban would be poor, unhappy, and on the verge of fleeing. “We went in with a very dif­ferent per­spec­tive than we came out of there with,” Beggin explained, noting that the Cuban gov­ern­ment has under­gone some­thing of a trans­for­ma­tion over the past few years, devel­oping new part­ner­ships with inter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions and the hotel industry. “The people I spoke with seemed happy. They didn't seem like they wanted to leave.”

Added Adomdza: “One of the main lessons from Cuba was that there were so many reforms going on in the pri­vate sector that it was dif­fi­cult to get a sense of where the country was going.”