“We made a difference. We made a beginning.”
Those words from Constance Bates, a faculty member in the College of Business at Florida International University (FIU), encapsulated the service learning experience she and eight FIU students underwent during their seven-day stay in Nicaragua in March 2013. The students are members of the college’s International Business Honor Society (IBHS); Bates serves as faculty advisor.
The trip’s purpose was to enable the students to help the women in a coffee cooperative improve their business. Beginning in September 2012, the participants met weekly to learn about Nicaragua’s coffee sector and arranged for guest lecturers, including a coffee expert from US AID. Upon their arrival in Nicaragua, they spent two days researching economic information about coffee growing, including a visit to the U.S Embassy in Managua, the capital, and two profitable coffee plantations.
Armed with their in-depth knowledge and a business plan, the group headed into a remote settlement of 65 families in Saint Julia to meet the women who run the co-op. Survivors of the Somoza era—with its legacy of rape and other human cruelty—the women impressed the U.S visitors with their determination, practicality, and warmth, despite their personal history and the hardship of their present conditions.
As often happens when students venture outside the classroom and encounter a real-world situation, surprises abounded.
“We had to completely rethink our presentation based on what we found in Saint Julia,” said Ana Peralta (BBA ’13), the site leader.
Not only did they make proposals, such as packaging and a logo, related to coffee farming, but also they proposed alternatives to coffee crops—a plan the co-op was already considering—because of fluctuations in the market, the downturn in prices caused by Vietnam’s emergence as a player and the spread of a destructive crop killer, coffee rust.
“The women were surprised to learn there were organizations to help them and were very grateful for that,” Bates said. “They were grateful that we replenished medical supplies and purchased a coffee depulper from funds we had raised. But when they saw the logo of their matriarch holding the coffee plant, and selected the colors of the coffee bags they wanted, they all cried. The students cried. Even I cried.”
Relationship just beginning.
IBHS envisions a five-year sustainability project with the co-op.
“One woman has access to computer and is on Facebook,” Peralta said.
Though she is only able to check it every week or so, the group will be able to stay in touch, a business and personal boon.
“We thought we would be acting as business consultants to women who wanted to sell coffee,” Peralta said. “Instead, we were accepted as family friends. We had no idea it would be so personal.”
And, when some in the group felt overwhelmed by the poverty and worried that their contributions would not be enough, Peralta re-assured them.
“I explained that we provided the gift of knowledge,” Peralta said. “What seemed so little to us could have been a leap for them.”
In addition to Bates and Peralta, the group consisted of Maria Aguirre (BBA ’13), Miki Asano, Tatiana Medina (BBA ’13), Maryam Moghani, Deborah Rivera (BBA ’13), Rosie Rosas (BBA ’13) and Luis Manuel Terron.
View a video of the trip, produced by Asano.