Aside from a trip to Canada, William Bratches had never spent much time outside of the Northeast. But over the summer he spent three months on co-op with a microfinance organization in rural Uganda.
“It was a whole different world,” said Bratches, a junior history major with a minor in business. “Those first few days, I just could not believe I was on the other side of the world. Uganda is a totally different place, like nothing I’d ever seen before.”
But Bratches adjusted quickly, and began working with the Uganda Cooperative Savings and Credit Union. He connected with the group through the Foundation for Sustainable Development, a San Francisco-based nonprofit focused on capacity building in the international community.
Bratches spent most days doing fieldwork. “I would hop on the back of a motorcycle with a loan officer and we’d head out into the field, spending our days talking to people who might be able to get a loan and following up with the people who already had,” he explained. “The first farmer I talked to literally had nothing. Some fertilizer, seed and an animal could really turn his life around.”
Bratches’ experiential learning opportunity was financed through the Presidential Global Scholars Program. He received his first lesson in microfinance in a course taught by Dennis Shaughnessy, an executive professor of entrepreneurship and innovation in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business and the founder of Northeastern’s Social Enterprise Institute.
“His class showed me that there’s a lot more to business than I had thought before,” Bratches said. “It can be used as a force that can do a lot of good.”
His ground-level look at life in the poverty-stricken region of eastern Africa didn’t end at the conclusion of the workday. On Saturday mornings, he would till the field and herd the cattle belonging to his host family of farmers.
He said he would recommend the experience to anyone studying or working abroad.
“It gave me a great perspective about what it was like to be a Ugandan,” Bratches said. “At the end of the day, I’d sit down for dinner with my host family and talk about politics and history and their family, which opened my eyes even more,” he added.
The firsthand experience convinced Bratches that microfinance could be a promising solution to addressing poverty in poor countries like Uganda. The system is imperfect, he said, but still holds promise.
“When it works, it can really change lives,” Bratches said. “It’s great to see families who got loans and who were then able to lift themselves up from poverty to the point where they now own their own farms and are thriving.”
He characterized his summer in Uganda as a self-revelatory experience. “When you’re in a completely new place and there’s nothing else to fall back on, nothing familiar from your life before, you really develop your own sense of self,” Bratches explained. “Through living in Uganda I found my own center of gravity.”