At North­eastern, Kelsey Burhans immersed her­self in under­standing Latin Amer­ican cul­ture and eco­nomics through the lens of micro­fi­nance and finan­cial inclusion—experiences that included working and studying abroad in Argentina, Hon­duras, and Bolivia.

Burhans, who grad­u­ated in Jan­uary with a bachelor’s degree in inter­na­tional affairs and eco­nomics, has received a pres­ti­gious Ful­bright fel­low­ship to con­tinue this research.

In Jan­uary, Burhans will begin her nine-​​month Ful­bright project in Bolivia and then con­tinue onto Peru. She will work closely with rural com­mu­ni­ties as well as micro­fi­nance orga­ni­za­tions, banks, and mobile money oper­a­tors in these coun­tries to under­stand the common vari­ables that sup­port and inhibit progress toward expanding mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties’ access to finan­cial services.

Burhans explained that finan­cial inclu­sion projects such as micro­credit, com­mu­nity saving and lending groups, and mobile money have been suc­cessful in emerging mar­kets in recent decades. While these ser­vices have pro­lif­er­ated to parts of the devel­oping world including the Andean region of South America, she said suc­cess has been mixed. Her goals are to under­stand the root causes of suc­cess and failure and to share her find­ings and poten­tial solu­tions with these orga­ni­za­tions as well as other global stakeholders.

I’m so excited to have the resources to exe­cute this research, which I believe is so impor­tant,” said Burhans, SSH’16. “I would love to take my research and apply it in a mean­ingful way.”

Kelsey Burhans, SSH'16, in Boston in April 2016. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Kelsey Burhans, SSH’16, in Boston in April 2016. Photo by Adam Glanzman/​Northeastern University

Her North­eastern journey

Burhans’ first global learning expe­ri­ences at North­eastern came in 2013. That summer, she par­tic­i­pated in a Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions pro­gram to Argentina and Uruguay. But she actu­ally got her first expe­ri­ence seeing micro­fi­nance in action ear­lier that year in Feb­ruary, when she spent two weeks in Hon­duras through Global Brigades, a student-​​led non­profit health and sus­tain­able devel­op­ment orga­ni­za­tion. She and other stu­dents from North­eastern and the Col­lege of Charleston con­ducted inter­views with com­mu­nity mem­bers in the rural town of Pajar­illos to assess their finan­cial ser­vices needs and help estab­lish a vil­lage banking structure.

Burhans fol­lowed up that expe­ri­ence with a co-​​op in Bolivia at Fun­dación Pro­greso in the summer of 2014. She focused pri­marily on con­ducting eco­nomic devel­op­ment research aimed at iden­ti­fying avenues to bring better energy and lighting sys­tems to rural com­mu­ni­ties throughout the country. She was a part of a team that inter­viewed people in sev­eral com­mu­ni­ties about both chal­lenges and solu­tions, which she found par­tic­u­larly valu­able. For example, she recalled how people in one com­mu­nity in the Amazon reacted to solar energy with skep­ti­cism, noting that heavy rain­fall and the dusty ter­rain would inhibit the impact of solar panels.

I’m so excited to have the resources to exe­cute this research, which I believe is so impor­tant. I would love to take my research and apply it in a mean­ingful way.”
— Kelsey Burhans, SSH’16

Berhans spent her final co-​​op the fol­lowing year at Cig­nifi Inc., a startup based in Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts, that has devel­oped a plat­form that trans­lates mobile phone data into credit and mar­keting scores. This plat­form, she explained, serves as a finan­cial inclu­sion solu­tion for under­served com­mu­ni­ties lacking tra­di­tional credit his­to­ries, and as a busi­ness ana­lyst she exam­ined market readi­ness for Cignifi’s plat­form in Latin America and other parts of the world.

She said her co-​​op at Cig­nifi served as a pri­mary driver toward her Ful­bright appli­ca­tion, and she plans to leverage the con­nec­tions and expe­ri­ence she’s gained throughout her studies and global expe­ri­ences at North­eastern to make the most of her Ful­bright project.

I’ll be focused on finding out what the pain points are to finan­cial inclu­sion,” she said, “with the aim of drawing con­clu­sions and hope­fully finding some tech­no­log­i­cally moti­vated solu­tions that bring more access to finan­cial inclu­sion initiatives.”