For international development student Lauren Kim (20), learning how to solve global poverty means understanding its complexities — and its solutions — firsthand. 

In the summer of 2018, Kim and three other students traveled to Africa with business professor and director of PLNU’s Center for International Development (CID), Rob Gailey, Ph.D., to see how various nonprofits are empowering communities to overcome poverty through economic development.

Over the combined four weeks spent in Zambia and Rwanda, Kim and her fellow students observed how organizations like Nazarene Compassionate Ministries (NCM), HOPE International, CARE, and World Relief are implementing different forms of microfinance, a means of creating banking and financial services to low-income individuals and communities that would otherwise lack access.

All of this, students noticed, gave members the capital, capacity, and empowerment to improve their livelihoods and pull themselves out of poverty using their own creativity and collaboration.

More specifically, they studied the model known as Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA), originally developed by CARE and hailed as one of the most sustainable microfinance models among similar organizations.

The students saw firsthand how members of VSLA groups could save and deposit money into individual savings accounts, withdraw loans and repay them with low interest, and invest in their own small businesses and property. All of this, students noticed, gave members the capital, capacity, and empowerment to improve their livelihoods and pull themselves out of poverty using their own creativity and collaboration.

The group was able to get a hands on experience of what millions of people all over the world participate in as their banking.

Upon returning to PLNU for the fall semester in 2018, encouraged by the success of economic development they saw in action, Kim and two other students from the trip, Dane Brizollara and Hannah Snowden, decided to reestablish the microfinance club on campus with the help of Gailey. Together, they would lead a simulation VSLA group of their own, saving their collective money and sharing their field experience with other students passionate about addressing global poverty issues as well.

Related Article: PLNU professor Rob Gailey considers a Christian approach to global poverty.

Kim took on the role of group chairperson, managing the club’s outreach and communications, as well as overseeing the procedures of the VSLA model’s format and the group’s strict guidelines — including charging fines for poor attendance or breaking the bylaws. By the end of the 2018-19 academic year, the simulation group completed its first annual cycle with around $2000 saved, donating a portion to invest as capital for a small business in Tanzania through the online microloan distributor Kiva

“It could not have gone better,” Kim recalls. “The group was able to get a hands on experience of what millions of people all over the world participate in as their banking. I 100% believe that if you asked anyone who was a part of the savings group last year, [they] would say it was a great experience and would highly recommend being a part of it!”

Following the group’s successful microfinance simulation cycle, Kim traveled once more to Africa in summer 2019, this time working in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda as an intern with San Diego-based technology/startup DreamStart Labs, which operates an app for savings group users to save more efficiently and effectively. As an international partner support intern, Kim continued to build on what she learned during her trip in 2018, as well as what she experienced through the microfinance club to help DreamStart Labs create a better product to empower those living in poverty. “I think the most important lesson I’m learning is that you have to — from the very start — create something with the user in mind. And even better, get the user involved in the creation/design process.”

We’re in the people business. The business of empowerment.

Returning to PLNU for her senior year in fall 2019, Kim plans to build onto the microfinance club’s positive experience from its first year and double the simulation into two separate groups to accommodate more members and anyone who plans to graduate early. This year, however, Kim will continue providing the group with her knowledge, field experience, and passion to serve as the club’s president. 

“I want to be someone who people know they can be heard by, who is a voice for the voiceless,” she says. “PLNU does a great job in providing those opportunities for students to study abroad, meet other people, and explore the world and issues outside of the university. The CID and the international development major push me to personally step out of my comfort zone and into those places that aren’t fully served.”

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