While most college students were spending their spring break at the beach in South Padre or relaxing with friends, a group of eight UTSA students traveled to the tropical, mountainous country of Costa Rica to volunteer for a nonprofit microlending program.
“Microlending brings finance out of the classroom so students can see how the real world works,” said Ron Sweet, MBA ’91, finance lecturer in the college and trip sponsor. “It makes the student experience much richer.”
The microlending program is the brainchild of Sweet, an award-winning faculty member who has taught at UTSA since 1997.
Following his retirement from USAA in 2009 as vice president of equity investments, he founded Indigenous Community Development International (ICDI), a nonprofit that provides funding and logistical support for community development projects near the city of Turrialba in Costa Rica. A year later, he established the microlending program, which provides low-cost loans to farmers in the region.
UTSA College of Business students were introduced to this nonprofit through Sweet’s involvement as advisor of the Investment Society, a student organization that educates members about the financial industry, financial analysis and the economy. Organized like a real investment firm, the Investment Society meets several times a week and has more than 45 members.
For the past several years member of the Investment Society have participated in the management of the $100,000 stock and stock option portfolio for ICDI. Sweet mirrors the decisions they make in the real portfolio.
“Not only are we learning sound financial skills by maintaining the portfolio, but we are motivated to give our best to its performance because it has a direct benefit for someone else,” said Investment Society member Ovidio Garcia, a senior majoring in finance and a trip participant. Recently, the Investment Society made their own microloan to Rigo, a coffee farmer, using money donated by Executive MBA students.
“Students have been involved long distance in this organization, but I wanted to provide more opportunities for them to experience firsthand the difference finance can make in a community,” said Sweet. Embarking on his first student trip, Sweet recruited students who were proficient in Spanish, Costa Rica’s native language. ICDI covered most of the costs for the students.
UTSA student participants were Ovidio Garcia, Ashley Hodridge, Joseluis Jimenez, Grecia Lopez, Salma Mendez, Rafael Mendoza, Alvaro Pequeno and Kimberly Galvan Posadas. “I participated in the trip because I wanted to help people,” said Pequeno, a senior majoring in real estate finance and development. “I’ve seen firsthand how business can make a difference in a community.”
The goal of the trip was to interview the agribusiness partners and share their stories in a comprehensive video. More than 20 partners were interviewed over the course of the eight-day trip. “The farmers are hardworking, extremely talented and proud of what they’ve accomplished,” said Sweet. “The only issue they have is lack of capital.”
Residents grow various crops including bananas, coffee, sugar cane and ayote. Some have also started small businesses such as general stores, taxi services and craft shops. “It feels good to give back to others,” said Mendez, a sophomore studying international business. “The people were open and excited to share their stories with us. You realize that we all have the same struggles and goals, no matter where you are in the world.”
The students also visited local schools and presented lessons on budgeting and finance and assisted the partners in developing business plans. “It was a good experience for the students,” Sweet said. “They learned to think on their feet, and they realized they learned more from their classes than they knew. The students had a big impact on the community.”
“It was inspiring to teach the partners something that will impact their entire lives,” said Mendez, who was born in Mexico City. “And, it was educational to see the differences between Mexico and Costa Rica. UTSA has so many opportunities available to students, and I plan on taking advantage of them all.”
Since the program’s inception more than 40 loans have been made totaling almost $70,000. To date, all loans are being repaid on schedule. All interest earned from the loans is reinvested to provide new loan capital.
“Being a part of this experience was life changing,” said Pequeno. “It makes you appreciate what you have. And I’m proud to know that business students can make an impact both financially and socially for the greater good.”