Jam-packed restaurants and saloons on game nights. Vendors hawking their wares outside Wrigley Field. Out-of-town…
During the fall semester of 2014, when Dennis Barsema and 10 of his microfinance students visited Mexico “to see how access to capital has made a difference in the lives of the poor,” they realized what a small world it is.
In tiny San Pancho, about an hour north up the coast from Puerto Vallarta, the Huskies met Nicole Swedlow.
Swedlow is the founder of Entreamigos, an organization that boosts learning opportunities for children and families through educational programs based on integration and collective community action. The money she raises sends her village’s underprivileged students to college.
Her work has not gone unnoticed: In 2014, she was honored by the Dalai Lama with one of the Unsung Heroes of Compassion Awards.
Turns out that Swedlow is also more than familiar with NIU: Her brother, Brendon, is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science.
“When we went back in the spring of 2015, I asked her, ‘Would you come to NIU and speak?’ She came in September of 2015,” says Barsema, an instructor in the College of Business’ Department of Management. “I arranged for a meeting with President Baker, who reached out to Randiss Hopkins to recruit students to meet Nicole in his office.”
Hopkins, who created The Remember Project, which empowers college students to give back to under-resourced communities in Chicago through volunteerism, delivered the goods.
“Nicole told me, ‘I met the best students. I’ve got to do something for them,’ ” Barsema says.
Less than three months later, that something – that amazing something – happened.
* * *
“San Pancho, Mexico, is a small town that most have never heard of, and in October, it was the same for me. Now San Pancho is a place that has changed my life forever. My expectations of the trip were that we’d be sitting in a classroom setting, taking notes, and being lectured at for a week. I was wrong. entreamigos, the non-profit organization that hosted us, had a week of workshops, community service and bonding experiences. In the workshops, I learned so much about myself as person, how I can be a better me and, most importantly, how I can be a better leader. The activities we participated in helped us grow closer as friends, and I think I can speak for everyone when I say the trip made us family. In October, San Pancho was just a place. Now San Pancho is like a second home.”
— Raven Bryant
* * *
Eight NIU students – Timi Adebjoe, Luke Arrington, Raven Bryant, Hopkins, Yannick Koua, Dexter Matthews, Janel Pilate and Yuije Sansone – traveled in January to San Pancho.
There they attended a workshop on social entrepreneurship leadership while also enjoying a close-up look at the entreamigos operation: “They believe that everyone has something to learn,” Hopkins says, “and everyone has something to teach.”
While the students were responsible for their travel costs, the NIU Foundation paid for the programming and their other expenses.
“Once Nicole put her energy behind it,” says Barsema, chair of the NIU Foundation Board of Directors, “it was a pretty simple decision for us as a university to put our energy behind it – and they had a life-changing experience.”
For many of the NIU students, the trip provided their first excursion outside the United States. Half of the group had scrambled to acquire passports.
And, although the eight originally hail from inner-city Chicago, their journey to Mexico offered an eye-opening look at what lies just beyond the border.
“We all tend to live in a fairly confined world. We tend to think that everyone lives like we do,” Barsema says, mentioning clean water, paved streets, light switches and flooring as examples.
“But the students told me, ‘We grew up on the South Side of Chicago. We thought we knew what poverty looked like. We didn’t,’ ” he adds. “This is a big world. We have a responsibility to give everybody the same opportunities we’ve had, opportunities the less-advantaged don’t have. Our goal is to give them the same opportunities – maybe not on the same scale – and the opportunity to dream.”
The Huskies, she says, came to Mexico “open, excited and liberated” about the chance to see, hear, smell, taste and touch something different. Naturally, she adds, they fully seized those opportunities.
“It was a world of new experience,” Swedlow wrote in an email to Baker and Barsema.
“We found ourselves embracing students that at first seemed very different than our own scholarship kids or the kids that we know and work with,” her message continued, “but as the week progressed, we discovered that, although worlds and cultures apart, they share similar histories, fears and face the same challenges as they look into the future.”
* * *
“Going to Mexico taught me that there is so much more to life than what we see right outside of our front doors in the states. Though we may not be able to see the entire world in just one lifetime, I encourage every person in this world to travel and see as much as possible. If not for you, do it so you can share the wisdom gained from such experiences with others who may never have the chance to see a world outside of their own.”
— Randiss Hopkins
* * *
Part of her simple instructions – bring the U.S. visitors to the beach for snacks and a shared sunset as the finale of Day One – launched a week of welcome and valuable surprises.
“I arrived at the beach for what I expected to be a tentative, semi-serious first introduction,” Swedlow wrote in her email, “and I found eight students, soaked to the bone in their sweatpants, tennis shoes, dresses and all, every one of them seeing the Pacific Ocean and getting swept up in the excitement.”
Fun was only part of the agenda, though. During the workshop on leadership, the NIU students absorbed wisdom from three seasoned and successful professionals.
- Hank Fieger, president of Hank Fieger Associates and an expert in interpersonal communication.
- Robert Graham, founder and president of GrahamComm and an expert in social psychology.
- Rick Kahn, senior communication trainer and coach at GrahamComm and an expert in leading organizational change through emotional intelligence.
Yet Swedlow, Fieger, Graham and Kahn – and, of course, the students of San Pancho – discovered themselves learning from the young adults from Chicago. It’s something President Baker told Swedlow is “the richest form of education.”
“Their darker skin spawned curiosity in our mostly white and Latino world,” her message continued. “I am sure that I had never felt my ‘race’ so on my sleeve, so exposed and so present, and in many moments, I was asked to examine that easy history, explore those feelings and to realize that what I never question about myself, they must constantly question in these contexts.”
When the week came to a close, she realized that the “gift” given to the NIU students provided mutual rewards of “awareness and introspection.”
“It was hard to hear of the challenges that these kids faced, and, knowing our own culture, the awareness of what they were yet to face,” Swedlow wrote, “but it was there that we had our greatest surprise. Where there was potential for anger and cynicism, we found hope, inspiration, solid intentions, a thirst for knowledge, appreciation for their gifts and love, love, love.”
* * *
“More than ever, this trip has affirmed with me the importance of happiness in whatever I do in life. The people we learned from have a genuine passion for what they do, and have worked hard enough at what they do to continue to sustain them beyond simple financial compensation. Paralleling this with the emotions felt in London last year, I realize how truly important this is to keep in mind in whatever field I choose to enter into. Positivity is unmatched, as my soul has felt a great calm and collection.”
— Timi Adebjoe
* * *
NIU’s students all delivered presentations to close out their time in Mexico, telling their new friends, mentors and teachers about experiences that Hopkins says “shaped our perspectives, beliefs and purpose in life.”
They reached a “jumping-off point” where they are inspired – and well-equipped – to “continue to evangelize the plight of others in the world,” Barsema says.
It reminds him of the message he conveys each semester to the NIU College of Business majors who enroll in his classes in microfinance and social entrepreneurship: “Find something that breaks your heart, and then go do something about it.”
“And that’s what I want for these students, to be even greater ambassadors of the disadvantaged as they already are through The Remember Project in Chicago,” he says. “I’m talking to Nicole about making this an annual event. We have to figure out how to select the students, and we have to find a donor source.”
Barsema is also working with Swedlow to develop an NIU College of Business course on leadership in social entrepreneurship, and is planning to bring her to campus as a guest speaker in those classes.
Meanwhile, he’s celebrating approval from the NIU Board of Trustees to offer entrepreneurship as a major with social entrepreneurship as an emphasis – putting NIU in fairly select company among other universities across the country.
The timing is right, Barsema says.
Since the fall of 2007, he and his wife, Stacey, have escorted 10 NIU students to Bucerais, Mexico, each semester to “bank the unbankable.” Each student must find a “client” – maybe a baker, maybe a seamstress, maybe a maker of napkins, table cloths or piñatas, maybe a restauranteur – and, upon their return to DeKalb, write a paper about those people and how a loan from a Micro Financial Institution would catapult their small businesses.
Each semester buoys his faith in the future – and stirs his envy of college students for whom every tomorrow is still a blank slate on which they can “write anything they want.”
“Millennials are different,” Barsema says. “They know that governments are not going to solve all the problems of the world, so they want to be a part of that. They want to do well – and do good – in life. That’s what social entrepreneurship gives them the opportunity to do.”
Hopkins already offers living proof, along with a clear understanding, of what inspires Barsema.
The NIU senior, who was honored among the 2015 class of Newman Civic Fellows and as a speaker for last year’s We Day Illinois event at the Allstate Arena, spent a week in Bucerais before moving on to San Pancho.
During his short internship with Human Connections, he served as a student consultant in a team of college students working to help local resident Don Enrique turn his passion for welding into a business.
Meeting Enrique and the other villagers “gave me a deeper understanding of what really matters in life,” he says, reflecting on their relatively meager possessions and simpler ways of life.
“In America, we may see their circumstances as unfortunate … but they are actually happy people. Strange, right? Maybe not. The longer I was there, it became more clear what they valued as a people,” Hopkins says.
“They value family. They value collective work and responsibility. They value community. They value hard work. They value creativity. They take pride in the humble homes that they built by hand for their families,” he adds. “And though they may not have much, they have the simple things, and to them that means they really have everything. They are genuinely happy because of it.”