In the end, cultural differences do not stand in the way of friendship and diplomacy, Kelsey Roets has found.
The first-year student is pursuing a Master of International Public Affairs degree as a step toward a life of international public service that builds on her undergraduate experiences in Latin America and graduate studies at the La Follette School. She spent three months in Nicaragua and Costa Rica during her sophomore year at University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire.
"Throughout my study abroad experiences, my host families, professors and other Central Americans mirrored my efforts to overcome cultural differences so we could engage in constructive interactions," says Roets, who grew up in Watertown, Wisconsin.
Roets returned to Nicaragua for three weeks during her senior year to study a micro-finance project that facilitated collaboration among rural women. Microfinance loans are short-term loans made by a for-profit or nonprofit agency. The loans often give individuals enough capital to start a small business and improve their economic situation.
In contrast, the Nicaragua program Roets, another student and an instructor studied provided loans to groups rather than individuals. The Eau Claire team interviewed participants in the pilot program established by a Nicaraguan lending institution that is supported by ENVEST, a Wisconsin-based cooperative.
"We observed that participation in group lending teaches group governance and finance," Roets says. "These skills support community organization and expand the women's spheres of influence by developing relationships and businesses."
Although the small loans did not appear to make a huge difference in women's lives, they definitely helped them out, Roets says. "It's a way to facilitate whatever they are doing or maybe take it to the next step. For example, parents could borrow $100 and hire somebody else to work at their restaurant so their children could stay in school," Roets adds. "It's really neat to see how a small loan can give children a chance to get an education."
These innovative lending programs seem to hold other social benefits as well.
A major reason for the popularity of microfinance among women is that it created a means for them to socialize outside of their homes. "The individual participants, not an institution, formed their groups, so the borrowers are people with social connections who want to support each other and help make extra money," Roets says. "They really like the social aspect of it, plus they know that if they can't make a payment, other people will help them out."
Roets hopes to return to Central America as part of her studies at the La Follette School, perhaps for a summer internship. The flexibility of the school's curriculum enables her to opt to use that experience for credit, pursue a focus on Latin American studies and gain a thorough grounding in policy analysis and microeconomics.
"La Follette's quantitative courses help give me the skills necessary to support my opinions and statements with data as well as critically assess what most people unquestionably accept as fact," Roets says.
She also appreciates the school's small size and student-to-teacher ratio. That and the school's renowned faculty, national ranking and affordability prompted her to choose La Follette. "Engaging conversations with classmates and professors is a daily occurrence and often one not limited to the classroom," Roets says.
Once Roets graduates, she hopes to work internationally in the public service sector for the U.S. government or for nonprofit organization in a position that promotes social well-being, Roets says. "Public service is important to me because there are so many ways we can help and learn from each other if we just take the time."
Passion for Politics: WHS grad studies microfinance in Nicaragua, September 3, 2011, Watertown Daily Times
Students study impact of lending programs in Nicaragua, February 10, 2011, University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire news release