Venezuela-​​born North­eastern stu­dent Juan Pena Salas com­pleted a Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions pro­gram in the Dominican Republic and then stayed for another five months, con­tin­uing his human­i­tarian work in an impov­er­ished community.

He did the Dia­logue through the Social Enter­prise Insti­tute, building a small, sus­tain­able farm to help a vil­lage inch closer toward pros­perity. “It was incred­ible seeing that kind of poverty,” said Pena Salas, a third-​​year stu­dent studying accounting and global social entre­pre­neur­ship in the D’Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness. “I knew these people were poor, but I was not expecting any­thing like what we saw.”

After the Dia­logue ended, he found a co-​​op with Esper­anza Inter­na­tional, a non­profit micro­fi­nance orga­ni­za­tion. He worked both in the field and at cor­po­rate head­quar­ters, col­lab­o­rating with loan offi­cers, col­lecting impor­tant data, and using his accounting exper­tise to pre­pare the organization’s annual finan­cial report.

I felt I was an essen­tial part of the com­pany,” Pena Salas said of the expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­nity. “I may have been there on co-​​op, but I was talking to the CEO and the gen­eral man­ager and the CFO, who relied on me to do impor­tant work.”

Pena Salas saw first­hand how small loans could make an enor­mous impact in the lives of extremely poor people in the devel­oping world.

We have thou­sands of clients who have been able to buy homes and send their kids to school,” Pena Salas said. “Most of our clients are women and for them these loans were a dream come true—a tool that could lift them out of poverty bit by bit.”

Many of the people who ben­efit from microloans have the skills and bright ideas for starting a busi­ness, but lack the funds for basic expenses, like ingre­di­ents for a bakery or seeds for a farm. “I saw a woman who started with nothing and she got a loan to start selling cakes,” Pena Salas said. “And now she’s run­ning her own bakery.”

Pena Salas wants to pursue a career in social busi­ness, but hopes to do his next co-​​op in the cor­po­rate sector, where he can solidify his finance and accounting skills.

You need to know all the same things, even though you might be using some of the skills in dif­ferent ways,” he said.

Pena Salas returned to the small vil­lage in the Dominican Republic before Christmas to check in, armed with a large supply of clothing and an eager­ness to help out. The farm has remained prof­itable, despite some serious flooding.

We know we’re working to make a dif­fer­ence,” said Pena Salas, who has begun plan­ning for another group of stu­dents to visit the vil­lage. “We’re doing this for a reason.”