Despite all the endorsements and rave reviews from my family, friends, and professors, I never studied abroad. I always had some reason to pass up the opportunity: too expensive, not enough time, wrong curriculum. When it was time to graduate, I was afraid I missed my chance.
Whereas most graduates attempt to grow roots after their nomadic college years, I couldn't stop dreaming about going abroad. It was in this mindset that I attended the screening of a friend’s documentary on international volunteerism, which she had completed during her time in Guatemala. A small portion of the film was devoted to Acción Emprendedora (Action Entrepreneurs or AE), a nonprofit organization that works to eradicate poverty in Latin America by helping low-income entrepreneurs develop their own businesses.
I have always been interested in economic development, especially the importance of entrepreneurs. I left the screening knowing I had to become a part of the organization. After numerous emails and international phone calls, I turned down a job offer in the States and, with the help of the Christianson Grant, packed my bags for Santiago, Chile, to volunteer at the AE central offices.
I arrived in Chile already impressed by the AE model. Microfinance has gained significant popularity since Muhammad Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, but AE focuses on more than just credit. AE provides classes, tutors, and access to loans for entrepreneurs. Specifically, AE operates through a three-step development model:
- AE offers free business and entrepreneurship classes in poor communities.
- Through its partnerships, AE provides access to low-rate microcredits that would be otherwise unavailable to the impoverished.
- AE provides free consulting services and access to technology during the initial growth of the micro-enterprise.
AE is currently in the process of opening entrepreneurship centers to offer these services in needier communities.
What continues to impress me about AE is that the majority of AE’s work is done by volunteers. While there is a small central staff, all professors and tutors are young volunteers from the community. Not only does AE educate micro-entrepreneurs, it also aims to provide opportunities for youth to get involved in combating poverty. As a result, twenty- and thirty-year-old volunteers who are passionate about making a difference in their communities dominate AE.
"What I was unprepared for when I landed in Santiago was the welcome I received from the AE family."
What I was unprepared for when I landed in Santiago was the welcome I received from the AE family. Immediately, the small five-member central staff accepted me as one of their own rather than the American who understood little of their rapid Spanish, usually responding sí to every question posed to me. They stuffed me with Chilean food, eagerly taught me Chilean slang, invited me to parties and weddings, encouraged me to explore their beautiful country, and overlooked my inevitable awkwardness as the only foreigner working among them. I once told a room of people that I was in a hurry because I had a date rather than a meeting on a Tuesday afternoon at 1:00 p.m.
In the office, my colleagues encouraged me to pursue projects that played to my strengths. During my time in Chile, I headed their international fundraising efforts, developed an international intern program with foreign universities, created an English-language course for the micro-entrepreneurs, and developed an e-marketplace to sell our entrepreneurs’ goods online to international consumers.
"During my time with Mauricio and his family in their home, I happened to see his AE graduation diploma framed on his mantle, reinforcing for me the impact AE has on its students."
I also interviewed entrepreneurs about their businesses and experiences with AE. The majority described their businesses with the same passion and excitement that other individuals exude when discussing their children. I spent a significant amount of time with one entrepreneur named Mauricio, who creates didactic learning material for children. During my time with Mauricio and his family in their home, I happened to see his AE graduation diploma framed on his mantle, reinforcing for me the impact AE has on its students.
During my last week in Chile, AE opened another entrepreneurship center in the city of Valparaíso. The central staff of five to which I had arrived had grown to 15. At the opening ceremony, they mingled with students, government officials, corporate donors, and foreigners alike.
The event was the perfect culmination to my time in Chile and reinforced the values I've come to expect from AE: welcoming newcomers into their family without hesitation, cultivating a passion for helping others, a belief in the transformative power of education, and approaching tasks with a limitless supply of smiles and jokes. It is my goal as a global citizen to find and foster communities like this wherever I am. Rather than quench my thirst for an international experience, my time in Chile has made me more eager to work and volunteer abroad.