Social entrepreneurship students create impact through virtual internships in Guatemala

Author: Heather Asiala

Like many Notre Dame students, undergraduates Diana Spencer and Brendan Bettencourt had plans to travel this summer; but when summer study abroad and internship programs were canceled due to the coronavirus, they needed to find an alternative.  

Diana Spencer works virtually with her group in Guatemala

“I still wanted to have a summer experience in international and community development,” said Spencer, a rising junior studying Economics and Global Affairs. “At first I was worried that a virtual format would not provide the same connection with the beneficiaries or culture, but I was pleasantly surprised that I felt connected to the country right away.”

Both Spencer and Bettencourt are now taking part in the 8-week Virtual Social Entrepreneur Corps Program (vSEC): an experiential learning internship program designed to sustain livelihoods and create opportunities in Guatemala and Ecuador, while enhancing interns’ empathy, adaptive leadership, collaboration and rapid problem solving skills. They will be working with a small group as ‘Community Consultants’ with Soluciones Comunitarias, a social enterprise focusing on social entrepreneurship, sustainability and job creation in Guatemala. 

Bettencourt was planning to work for a tech company in the Boston area prior to COVID-19, but chose the vSEC as an alternative summer experience. 

“I’ve really enjoyed applying my majors and minors throughout this program,” said Bettencourt, a junior studying Spanish and economics with minors in Entrepreneurship and International Development Studies. “The first few weeks set the theoretical foundation in entrepreneurship, human-centered design and theory of change, and now we are really getting into consulting with the organization.” 

VSEC is designed and led by Greg Van Kirk, an Ashoka Globalizer and World Economic Forum Social Entrepreneur of the Year. 

“The virtual program includes asynchronous and synchronous core components that have always made this a one-of-a-kind opportunity,” said Van Kirk, who leads some of the sessions live and in Spanish. “We can’t allow distance to get in the way of experiential learning -- the skills participants are learning throughout the program are needed now more than ever.”

Diana and Brendan are two of eight students being sponsored for vSEC by the Pulte Institute Student Fellowship, which - thanks to a generous gift from Rick and Molly Klau in 2018 - supports students pursuing international, Social Entrepreneurship internships. Five of the students accepting the Fellowship are part of the International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP) of the Center for Social Concerns.

“Greg and the team did a great job adapting to a virtual format and showing us the values of Guatemala on screen,” said Spencer. “I was sincerely moved by one of our empathetic interviews with a young Guatemalan struggling during the global pandemic. He’s suffered more than we have academically because his schools have not offered online or in-person alternatives. It gracefully revealed the inequalities felt during this uncertain time.”

Melissa Paulsen, Director of the Pulte Institute’s Education & Entrepreneurship Division and concurrent Assistant Professor of the Practice with the Keough School of Global Affairs, had Brendan in her Social Entrepreneurship course this Spring and is a close collaborator with Van Kirk.

“I am continuously impressed by the ability of our students to adapt and embrace different learning modalities, including this innovative virtual learning experience with Greg’s team and vSEC,” said Paulsen. “It gives me hope that, despite the distance, we can continue to accompany communities and create impact.”

The Pulte Institute for Global Development—an integral part of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame—works to address global poverty and inequality through policy, practice, and partnership. 

Contact: Heather Asiala, communications program manager, Pulte Institute for Global Development,