Guatemala native Dahlia Hilario has wanted to return home to help her poverty-​​stricken neighbors.

But the North­eastern junior didn’t know how to make a lasting impact on her local com­mu­nity until she com­pleted a co-​​op with a non­profit insti­tu­tion in Cape Town, South Africa.

Hilario, who ispur­suing a degree in eco­nomics, worked for Mhani Gingi Entre­pre­neurial Net­works, a recently founded micro-​​finance orga­ni­za­tion that will give micro-​​loans to strug­gling, female entre­pre­neurs who operate small busi­nesses in nearby townships.

The expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­nity pro­vided Hilario with the tools to develop a strategy for funding a new ele­men­tary school in Chin­autla, a vil­lage just north of Guatemala City. She is working with her par­ents, brother and cousins to build the school, and her part of the project will require her to develop a busi­ness plan.

Hilario’s work is a step in the right direc­tion for a his­tor­i­cally poor edu­ca­tion system that has helped fuel a cul­ture of per­va­sive gang vio­lence and cor­rup­tion, she said.

This co-​​op made me realize that you could use micro-​​finance to help combat poverty,” she explained. “It gave me hope to go back and feel that I can do some­thing now.

I real­ized that, in Guatemala, if you don’t have an edu­ca­tion you just stay in a cycle of poverty for the rest of your life,” she added. “It angered me to see what my people were going through.”

At Mhani Gingi, Hilario helped under­priv­i­leged single women start their own small busi­ness ven­tures. She co-​​wrote a busi­ness plan and inter­viewed sev­eral aspiring entre­pre­neurs who showed promise despite their poor eco­nomic standing.

These women might not have had resources, but they had the poten­tial to do a lot,” Hilario said. The non­profit plans to award three entre­pre­neurs about $200 each to start up their busi­nesses, including a jew­elry store, a catering com­pany and a fabric stand.

Working for just about any other non­profit in the world couldn’t rival Hilario’s expe­ri­ence in Cape Town. “It was a very hands-​​on expe­ri­ence,” she said. “It’s amazing to see your work start out as nothing and then have it come to fruition.”

Hilario, who lived in a suburb called Pinelands, quickly made friends with local fam­i­lies and grew accus­tomed to town­ship life. She plans to return to Mhani Gingi after she grad­u­ates next year.

The Cape Town co-​​op was Hilario’s second. She pre­vi­ously com­pleted a co-​​op at PanAgora Asset Man­age­ment, a Boston-​​based pri­vately owned hedge fund sponsor.