‘Banking’ on Bangladesh: E-town Students, Faculty Members Visit Yunus Centre, Grameen Bank on Spring Break Study Tour
Elizabethtown College frequently offers its students—and even alumni—the opportunity to explore new cultures and participate in coursework by way of short-term, faculty-led study tours. These tours, are typically held over breaks or during May Term. However, “student-led” might be a better description for a 2014 Spring Break trip to Bangladesh—at least in terms of how the program initiated.
A two-credit, team-taught seminar course, “Socioeconomics of a Developing Country,” leads Dr. Sanjay Paul, associate professor of economics; Dr. Kristen Waughen, visiting assistant professor of computer science; and six students to Dhaka, Bangladesh, Feb. 28 through March 8. The study tour stemmed from Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhummad Yunus’ visit to Elizabethtown College in 2012 as part of the Ware Lecture on Peacemaking, an annual event that brings notable Nobel Laureates and global figures to the central Pennsylvania region. Yunus is founder and managing director of Grameen Bank. With the tagline, “Bank for the Poor” and the belief that “small pursuits can add up to create the biggest development wonder,” Grameen fights poverty in rural Bangladesh by providing credit without collateral to poor residents. The Yunus Centre is a resource hub for social businesses in Bangladesh and beyond.
True to its inspiration, the study tour centers on spending time at the Yunus Centre. Paul said that students are scheduled to learn about social businesses supported by the Centre, specifically how these organizations carry out the principles of gender empowerment and poverty alleviation. Another highlight –a visit to Grameen Bank–is intended to show students how microfinance impacts developing countries. The itinerary includes visits to other divisions of Grameen, including Danone, a yogurt producer. Paul said sessions, group discussions and activities are schedule from dawn to dusk. Adding to the cross-cultural element, Elizabethtown students plan to learn alongside and dine with their counterparts from Germany’s Constance University, who are scheduled to visit the Centre at the same time. Waughen added that the trip culminates with individual student meetings with Yunus.
Coursework to prepare for the trip focused on the relationship between technology and microfinance dollars. Students explored the “digital divide,” which Waughen says is more than “haves and have-nots.” For example, she explained, you can give someone a tablet, but that doesn’t solve literacy issues. Another activity was a “backpack survey” to illustrate how much technology—from laptops to Fit Bit monitors—we have on our person at all times and a tally of how many screens students come into contact with each day.
“[The exercises] show how technology is permeating society and how much we take it for granted,” said Waughen, adding that economics and technology are “two disciplines interwoven into our culture.”
When students get to Bangladesh, they will see a difference in available technology, Waughen said. But the story of getting there is a worthwhile tale in itself.
Getting to Bangladesh: There and Back Again
It took coming to another continent for Salman Habib ’13 to make a connection in his home country.
Habib, then an international student hailing from Bangladesh, attended the 2012 Ware Lecture at which Yunus spoke. Yunus’ endeavors in microfinance left an impression on the business administration major. Habib and a few equally interested classmates brainstormed ways they could learn more about social business or possibly become more involved with the Yunus Centre. That’s when the students approached Paul—for his expertise in economics and experience leading study tours—and Waughen—for her role in advising the College’s ENACTUS chapter (formerly known as SIFE), a national student organization dedicated to transforming lives through entrepreneurial action.
This was all student-driven…”
“This was all student-driven; [Habib] was the primary agent,” said Paul. “Study tours don’t typically come from a student coming to a faculty member and saying ‘let’s do this’; it’s quite unusual,the genesis of this program. After meetings with students and even a representative for the Yunus Center during a 2013 visit, the two faculty members worked on a course proposal and presented it to President Carl Strikwerda, who, said Paul, was very supportive.
Paul said that Habib’s involvement in initiating the study tour and his current involvement at the Yunus Centre is “a testament of student interest and determination.” Habib got things rolling, but he graduated before it came to fruition. As chance would have it, though, Habib is, in a way, part of the study tour. After his graduation in 2013, he stayed in the United States—but he later returned to his home country—to work at the Yunus Centre.
Yunus’ visit to Elizabethtown College didn’t just inspire the study tour; Habib and other students developed a vested interest in microfinance after attending the lecture. Paul and his students wonder: Could Elizabethtown College and Yunus collaborate on a social business incubator that would benefit residents of our region? While not the ultimate goal, the study tour allows students to further explore the idea of a College-initiated effort.
Not Business As Usual
Some might think a study tour centered on microfinance and listed as an economics course might attract business majors. Not the case with this particular trip. Paul is pleased with the diversity of majors of the six students enrolled in the class: occupational therapy, business administration, Japanese, international business, computer engineering and one who is a double major—math and economics. Paul explained that there are a number of reasons this study tour attracted students from this broad array of majors. Mostly, he said, they are intrigued with the idea of studying in a developing nation. He added that one student, Rebecca Anderson—the occupational therapy major—has a more specific professional goal tied to the trip.
“Becca really wanted to see how occupational therapists work in developing countries. She also spent a semester in India,” he said, adding that she was able to customize her itinerary a bit to fit her interests. This includes staying an extra few days to visit a healthcare center in Dhaka to “gain firsthand experience with health professionals” through a “mini-internship” that will ultimately count toward her required fieldwork hours.
Anderson, a New Hampshire native, doesn’t plan to work in a hospital; instead, she’s interested in “emerging practice”—basically, less traditional places to serve those in need of OT services. She had “an inkling” that she was leaning toward women’s issues or working in developing communities, but it was studying abroad in India that “pushed her heart.”
It will be a trip of many experiences.”
“[I want to] use my OT lens to solve these problems. That’s one big dream,” she said, adding that this study tour allows her to look at issues beyond healthcare. Anderson hopes her involvement will promote emerging practice opportunities among other students or even practitioners of occupational therapy—even if they don’t plan on working in another country.
“[Study abroad] really helps you become more creative and culturally competent. You never know who you will be working with,” she said.
Amy Berdanier, a senior mathematics major/economics minor from Harrisburg, Pa., has had a longtime interest in real life applications of economic policy and couldn’t pass up the Bangladesh trip.
“The Grameen Bank setup has flourished into a model replicated by many countries, and they even help other countries set up Grameen branches. Moreover, for me to get to experience something so influential and revolutionary, firsthand, was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” she said, adding that she wants to learn more about what people do to generate income once they obtain microloans.
Berdanier is excited at the different perspectives that traveling with such a diverse group of students could bring.
“…it is actually very refreshing that we have a diverse group because then people will have different points of view or notice things others did not. That is very valuable,” she said. “It will be a trip of many experiences.”