Guatemalan Daniel España and Spaniard Lucas Marmol are 19-year-old freshmen at the IE University’s bachelor’s program in business administration in Segovia, Spain, who have chosen to step outside their comfort zones. Both students are participating in a social impact project at their university — a two-month study program during which students provide community service outside the borders of their campuses. For both España and Marmol, the project has meant working as volunteers in the Strathmore Educational Trust in Kenya, an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) designed to help parents and young people.
Knowledge@Wharton High School spoke with both students, now back in Spain, about their experiences.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: How did the opportunity to go to Africa come up, and why did you decide on this particular project?
España: It happened by chance. At the IE University, we are motivated to have experiences outside of Spain, and so we were able to learn about this project. There were quite a few options around the world to become volunteers, but we chose Kenya because it is a country that has many needs but which [also] has many strengths. Besides, people don’t know much about it. Already, million-dollar ideas have come out of Kenya, such as mobile funds transfer, and we are certain that it has great potential for future development. The only thing needed is to support its people.
KWHS: What are the goals of the NGO for which you are working?
Marmol: Strathmore Educational Trust is devoted to helping the disadvantaged people of the slums of Nairobi. It helps families, including parents, by educating young people through sports activities. To do that, it operates two centers where they teach technical skills aimed at preparing people to have their own businesses or make it easier for them to get work — something that can be very difficult to do in Nairobi sometimes. It also provides economic assistance and advice to these informal enterprises.
KWHS: What functions did you perform on a day-by-day basis? And what was your favorite part of the work you did?
Marmol: We woke up early and we took a matatu [bus] to go to the slums. Depending on the day, we could be giving classes in Spanish, coaching teams of kids about soccer or visiting small businesses in the region. Our favorite part, and the thing that was most inspirational and interesting, was visiting people at their workplaces and learning a lot about what they did every day, while also suggesting ideas for their businesses. There were all sorts of people, ranging from those who sold coffee in the streets, to rabbit breeders, to people who manufactured backpacks.
KWHS: Did some person or experience touch you in a special way?
España: I was especially drawn to one boy who, after finishing high school, received a gift of 30 euros (about US$43) from his sister. Normally, when young people get this sort of present, they buy things that they like, but this boy preferred to invest the money to start his first business, and now he sells coffee that is ready to drink. Despite the fact that his resources are limited and he didn’t study business, he is a full-fledged entrepreneur.
KWHS: What skills has this experience enabled you to develop the most?
España: I believe that the experiences have enabled us to develop ourselves from a professional, personal and human point of view. Professionally, the fact that you are working during your first year of [college] study gives you a lot of confidence, and enables you to think about the future with less timidity. Personally, it enables you to do a better job of managing yourself and your resources in a new environment. From a human perspective, when you are part of an underprivileged segment of the population, it awakens something within you that changes [how you look at] various aspects of your life.
KWHS: Have you changed your viewpoint about Africa, the world of NGOs and the business world? What path do you want to pursue in your professional lives?
España: For us, being in Kenya for a long time awakened great interest in the continent, and in its history and natural environment. We have been reading a great deal about that, which has helped us better understand the lifestyle and traditions of Africans. Now we have several ideas that could be set in motion in Kenya. One of those is to create an initiative for business incubation in cooperation with the NGO and our university. Many ideas for businesses have also emerged as well. The [natural] resources of the continent can make you dream.
KWHS: If other students or young people asked your advice about going to Africa, what would you bring back in your suitcase to help their careers as students and, perhaps, also their professional career?
España: I would recommend that they inform themselves as much as possible about the country they want to go to, and prepare to see unusual situations. Whenever you go to an unfamiliar place, you need to learn about the culture in great depth so that you don’t show any disrespect unintentionally, and so that you are not surprised when you see things that you are not accustomed to seeing. When you get back, you’ll bring home an unforgettable experience — not simply a professional experience, but something that will affect every aspect of your life.