For students in the U.S., finding student loans and financial aid is often cumbersome but generally manageable. For students in developing countries, finding money for higher education often is impossible.
BYU students are helping an innovative micro-loan company make college affordable for impoverished students around the world.
Vittana is a micro-loan company with a mission to use education as a tool to fight poverty everywhere. It has created means by which people can loan money, as little as $25, directly to students in developing nations all over the globe. The students then attend college, find higher paying jobs and are then able to use their increased income to pay the loan back.
So far, 99.2 percent of students have repaid their loans in full, and more than 8,000 students in 12 developing nations have been helped so far through Vittana.
"Vittana's mission is to graduate a generation beyond poverty," said Matt Duncan, marketing and products director for Vittana. "We're in the fight against global poverty; we do that with the most powerful tool we believe, and that is education."
And they certainly aren't fighting alone. Vittana has formed a relationship with the Students for Social Entrepreneurship program in the Ballard Center of Brigham Young University, allowing a team of students to work as interns with the company. Others have been able to work as fellows in these developing countries with students who are receiving micro-loans through Vittana.
"We wanted university students involved — we really truly believe they're a powerful force. This is a generation that actually really has a caring heart, and we see that university campuses or college-level students do have the power and the passion to get behind causes," Duncan said. "We have a vision of taking college-age students and connecting them with these students everywhere."
Jason Harrison's experience as a fellow in Paraguay this summer led to direct connection with many of the students using loans from Vittana, and gave him real-world experience as a social entrepreneur.
"When you give somebody a loan for education, you don't just help them economically," Harrison said. "It changes the way you think about yourself with education, and the whole concept of self-worth the way that having an education transforms their self-esteem. When they double or triple their income, they start helping parents and cousins out; they are pulling generations out of poverty."
Harrison got the fellow position through his work with the SSE and the Ballard Center, and the experience was able to add to his major — Latin American studies.
"I got an on-the-ground view of the types of problems Vittana is dealing with and the way BYU students can help deal with it," he said. "There were definitely challenges, you definitely count your blessings."
The students in the U.S. who can make a difference are in the college system and know what a gift it is to be there and get education; they want to make that difference for others who deserve the same opportunities, he said.
One of Vittana's missions has been to make a point of how the company is not giving a handout to students who need money for college tuition, but a hand up.
Duncan met Harrison while he was in Paraguay and saw him as he did research to see the impact of what was happening to those receiving loans.
"He saw as they were having more meager jobs, and then as they got a job you could see how their income would change — but, how did their life change?" Duncan said. "From a BYU perspective, he has been exposed to the entrepreneurial world because of their focus he enhanced his understanding of different cultures. They are the kinds of fellows who really make a difference."
Another reason the company believed students would be effective in raising awareness and help with Vittana's mission was the concept of money to students, who believe "if they are going to give, they want it to do something," Duncan said.
The result of including BYU with Vittana's work has been both impactful and hopeful.
"It's an eye opener when you hear that many students in other countries either have to have money in cash to pay tuition, or they don't go to college," BYU student Curtis Pope said. "In talking to other college students, that came as a surprise. We did a fundraiser, set up a booth and the majority would go by and say, 'I had no idea that students were in that kind of predicament.' Many don't realize loaning money by this medium to students is a good and available option.Comment on this story
"It was cool to see that light click students like hearing what Vittana is doing," he said.
Pope is studying economics and was an on-campus intern for Vittana through the Ballard Center. He knew he wanted to do something with microfinance and some type of social service-oriented mission, and the experience with Vittana gave him "a perfect opportunity to be personally introduced into those fields," he said.
"It's really just that foot in the door. Instead of it being a theoretical class, this is the real world, this is what real companies are doing," Pope said. "The Ballard Center offered a hands-on experience in the real world."
Mandy Morgan is an enterprise intern for the Deseret News, reporting on values in the media. She is a true-blue Aggie, studying journalism and political science at Utah State University, and hails from Highland, Utah.