Since 2017, Paulette Stenzel, professor of sustainability and international business law in the Department of Finance, has accompanied students on field experience and MSU Education Abroad programs where they work to make a positive difference and gain hands-on experience with sustainable development. This year’s Grassroots Tools of Sustainable Development: Service Learning in Guatemala trip was an alternative spring break connecting 13 students with coffee farmers at the San Antonio de Chacaya Coffee Cooperative to enhance bean processing capacity.
“The students worked side by side with these farmers, digging, leveling, hauling rocks, making trenches, mixing cement and getting a real start on this facility,” Stenzel explained. “Along the way, friendships were solidified and learning was deep… You talk about ‘Spartans Will,’ well, my students really are doing it.”
The participants included students involved with the Spartan Global Development Fund, a registered student organization and nonprofit dedicated to helping entrepreneurs around the globe, and others from MSU. From its beginning in 2009, the ongoing work of SGDF has been to deliver interest-free microloans — small loans ranging from $25 to $5,000 — to people in impoverished regions around the world to attain success and stability while improving quality of life for themselves and their community.
“Spartan Global is a lot of things,” Solomon Kronberg, current vice president of SGDF and a sophomore in economics and comparative cultures and politics, said. “I see it as a space to meet driven people who are concerned with similar issues, curious about how the world works and looking for ways to change it for the better.”
In January, SGDF issued its largest loan ever to Chacaya: a $5,000 loan to cover the cost of materials needed for a cement patio and rinsing bins, which the students were able to help build during the education abroad trip in March. SGDF loan recipients are selected with the assistance of field partner As Green as It Gets, with which Stenzel made connections across her 40 years working on research projects in Guatemala. Past loan recipients have included auto mechanics, leather artisans and restaurateurs.
“The loan recipients are the ones who are actually enacting change, not us,” Jaimee Beckett, SGDF member and a senior in computer science and engineering and genetics, said. “Yes, we gave the money, but they are the ones who put in the long, hard hours.”
Rising to the challenge amid COVID-19
While gaining this experience abroad, Stenzel and the student participants remained unaware of the extent that the novel coronavirus was spreading and impacting life at home. “There were vague whisperings of it happening, but we were in a very remote area, so we really had no idea just how bad it was,” Stenzel said.
After the students returned home and adjusted to new norms in the United States, they realized their work in Guatemala was far from finished. “Many families in Guatemala are suffering from hunger because they cannot earn funds to purchase food and access to food is limited,” Stenzel said. “They are living under strict travel restrictions and a 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew.”
SGDF members rose to the challenge, starting an emergency relief fund with a goal of $10,000, to raise funds for food and limited financial assistance for recent microloan recipients and the 49 members of the Chacaya community. The fund is separate from SGDF’s typical loan efforts.
“This is important because we’re predicting that the regions we primarily work in will feel the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for a long time,” Kronberg said. “We want to be able to do what’s best for our partners, which is why we must be able to continue offering interest-free loans as industries recover in the coming years.”
“For entrepreneurs with outstanding loans, obviously we’re not going to be hounding people for payments if they’re having problems putting food on the table,” Stenzel said of SGDF’s plans moving forward. “This relief fund is like everything with coronavirus: we just don’t know how things will turn out. We don’t know how long this will last and people in Guatemala will be locked down. But I know my students will continue to help as long as is necessary.”
Emma Gilbert, president of SGDF and a sophomore in social relations and policy and urban and regional planning, added, “Our impact is only as significant as the number of people that understand the hardships the people in Guatemala are facing. We have raised over half of our $10,000 goal. However, even if we raise the full $10,000, our mission is not complete and we will continue to fundraise and make any impact we can to help our loan recipients in Guatemala.”
To support the Spartan Global Development Fund’s emergency relief fund, visit SpartanGlobalFund.org.