Why choose Panama as the setting for a class on social entrepreneurship? Home to skyscrapers, tropical jungles, indigenous people, exquisite islands and the canal, Panama is considered the fourth strongest economy in Latin America and one of the top 20 fastest growing economies in the world. However, strong economic performance has not translated into broadly shared prosperity, as Panama has the second worst income distribution in Central America after Haiti. These characteristics make Panama an ideal location for a class offered by the Center for Education on Social Responsibility (CESR) and the CU Study Abroad program.
This past May, CESR offered its first study abroad seminar, Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Eight students from Leeds and one student from the engineering school traveled to Panama for an immersive cultural experience. The seminar was designed to provide students with practical knowledge and experience in developing innovative
solutions to social and environmental challenges facing people in the developing world.Over the course of three weeks, students were able to get a unique perspective on rural
Panama as they lived with families and worked with members of a small community, Las Delicias. The program’s director and CESR instructor, Catherine Milburn, noted, “This was a unique experience for the students, and the lessons they learned will apply to both their personal and business life.”
Evolution of the Seminar
The Panama Global Seminar was developed from an established class that has been offered by CESR for many years -- Business Solutions in the Developing World (CESR 4005), is an elective course taken by students pursuing the SRE Certificate and other interested business students. In this class, students learn how business techniques and methods can be used to address poverty as well as other social and environmental challenges.
During the semester, students work on global projects using Skype and email to communicate with partners around the world. However, the projects are often challenging due to physical distance and communication between students and their partners. This year, for the first time, students in the Panama Global Seminar were able to directly communicate with partners and develop an understanding of the impact of culture.
“The whole idea behind this seminar is to immerse yourself in the culture and understand the context in which you are working, Students are forced to look at the world through a different lens. You are able to see the influence of culture on both the challenges and the solutions that are developed,” says Milburn.
To make a real impact, it was important that students live in the community so that they could recognize the existing assets, identify areas for change, and understand the culture. Students lived in homestays with families in Las Delicias, and over three weeks they became very close with their families and gained an understanding of the community.
As Leeds student Arturo Avila explains, “Living with a true Panamanian family was what helped me understand fully what Panama is: a mixture of cultures and nationalities from all around the word sharing the same patriotism and love for their country…an admirable country with rich history and truly amazing people.”
A project with positive impact
After a few days of living in Las Delicias and meeting with a variety of community members, the students identified that communication was a significant problem for the local residents. Cell phone and internet service is n
onexistent and there is no mail delivery. Most communication is by “word of mouth.”
Milburn recalled a story where a doctor came to the town and a majority of families had not heard about the visit. One student said that their host family needed medical care but was not informed the doctor would be there that day. Apparently, they weren’t home when someone came by to tell the family about the doctor’s visit. Another student, Gage Clifton, noted the difficulty that faced a local Peace Corps worker, Elena. When informing community members of upcoming community meetings, she would have to walk throughout Las Delicias and find each person individually, often a major challenge. The students began to realize that there were multiple instances where lack of communication among the community caused problems.
To bridge the communication gap, the students applied human centered design thinking to come up with a solution. Design thinking focuses on using the community’s current assets and resources to create innovative solutions. The solution was very simple and direct.
By evaluating the many assets of the community, a mailbox system was suggested at a community meeting. The students’ proposal was met with a positive response. Individual mailboxes were built for a group of families using widely available materials such as soda bottles, coffee cans and wood. Community members were then instructed on how to build and use the mailboxes on their own. The Peace Corps worker, agreed to monitor the use of mailboxes after the students left the community. Clifton commented, “This solution would allow my host family to be more looped in, Elena to deliver invitations more efficiently, and the school teacher to access a more reliable line of communication with her students’ families.” Many students left the community with more than course credit --“My host father said to me before I left, ‘Siempre serás mi amigo y mi hijo, esta será por siempre tu casa y tu familia’ (you will always be my friend and son, this will always be your house and your family).”
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