One Year in Chile

March 3, 2010 | Joe Repp, MEMS

The following story is reprinted from DukEngineer, the annual magazine written entirely by Pratt undergraduates. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never taken a formal accounting class in my entire life. Business is not my major, and Spanish is certainly not my first language. These are just a few of the several reasons why I never really imagined that my half-completed Pratt career would lead to spending 12 months teaching accounting classes in Spanish to small business owners or “micro-entrepreneurs” in Santiago, Chile. 

Though much calculus was forgotten and the highly-coveted status of being a 5th year senior is now inevitable (little, if any, sarcasm intended given the current state of the global job market—sorry Class of 2010), my year 4,833 miles away from the Duke Engineering quad formed a critical aspect of my education and will have a profound affect on my future, as much professionally as personally. Though perhaps not suited for everyone, here’s why I’m so convinced that such an experience constituted not some form of surreal escape from problem sets or a study abroad on steroids, but rather everything an abroad experience can and, indeed, should be for engineers. 

Joe Repp
Joe Repp

First though, a quick year in review: I arrived in Santiago in August of 2008 and began a three month study abroad program through the School of International Training centered on Chilean economic development and globalization. As my American compañeros returned to their respective universities in December, however, I was just gearing-up for taking on my new (DukeEngage-funded!) role as the Director of International Programs at the Chilean micro-finance NGO Acción Emprendedora (“Entrepreneurial Action”). Founded in 2002 by a Chilean Duke alumnus, Acción Emprendedora, or simply AE, is an innovative non-profit organization whose mission is to break the cycle of poverty in Chile and foster sustainable business practices by offering micro-entrepreneurs essentially free access to business classes, consulting, modern technology and micro-credit intervention. 

My official role as the Director of International Programs was to design and coordinate projects for the class of 15 international interns during the summer of 2009. AE’s foreign volunteers (ranging from sophomore undergraduates to MBA students) are assigned special projects for which the AE full-time staff may not have either the required time or skills. One recent such special project is an online “e-marketplace,” a web platform which will permit AE’s students to display and eventually sell their products online. 

With time and hard-earned cultural adaptation, I was eventually invited to become the first non-Chilean professor and consultant at AE. Though nervous, and equipped only with rudimentary accounting knowledge gleaned from past finance internships, I knew I could not refuse the opportunity to take my civic engagement to an entirely different level. Personal interaction with AE’s entrepreneurs seemed like the logical next step, and thus I embarked on the daunting task of teaching myself accounting principles in Spanish, accompanied by the creation of lesson plans and Powerpoints for my AE students. 

MY students!? The concept did not entirely hit home until the first night of classes when the classroom located in the impoverished barrio of Puente Alto began to populate with adults both eager to learn and surprised by the sight of their young “gringo” professor.

“How old are you?” one middle-aged woman asked immediately following my brief introduction to the course.

“Twenty-four, Señora,” I exaggerated out of the fear of possible loss of all credibility (I’m twenty-one).

“I have a son who is older than you,” commented another woman.

“Ah, que bueno,” (“That’s nice”) was the extent of the reply I mustered up (although to this moment I still can’t think of a better response). 

Somehow, however, I managed to steer the topic of the conversation back to balance sheets and cash flow statements, and the remaining classes, all things considered, could not have gone any smoother. Following the final class, receiving emails, baked-goods, hugs, and thank you notes from appreciative students saying that the concepts they learned would help them to improve their business, without a doubt, became my most gratifying experience throughout the duration of my service. 

Returning to the original point—why this experience comprises such a key element of my education—I can point to four concrete accomplishments which, although coming about almost naturally due to the essence of long-term, international service, will almost certainly have a direct impact on my future. They are as follows: 

  • Becoming intimately united with a new people and culture— as international borders fade into mere formalities thanks to 21st century innovations and global economies, becoming a true “citizen of the world” who’s able to effortlessly maneuver between various international settings will continue to increase in importance and add value to countless professional roles. Spending twelve months in Chile allowed me to cease viewing my host country from the perspective of a visitor (“outside-in view”) and instead begin viewing the outside world from the vantage point of a Chilean (“inside-out view”). 
  • The mastering of a foreign language—though Pratt does not require a foreign language requirement of its students, language is the medium through which lasting friendships are made, business is conducted, and mutual, human understanding is achieved. Though I’ve been a fervent student of Spanish nearly my entire life, being forced to live in a foreign language enabled me to master nuances that make communication more personal, precise, and entertaining. I can think of few abilities more rewarding than possessing knowledge of multiple languages. 
  • Serving people in areas of scarce economic resources- the experience would not have been successful nor complete had I not left believing that I had made a difference in others’ lives. Undoubtedly, the Chilean micro-entrepreneurs taught me more about life than I could ever have hoped to teach them about accounting. Yet, the feeling of making a small but positive impact on a community reinforced the notion that social responsibility must a key component of my future work.
  • Improving management and leadership skills- coordinating projects among 15 high-caliber interns, in itself, was a crash-course in both organizational and management skills. However, my Chilean mentor, Julian, a management consultant at Booz & Co. and co-founder of AE, also served as an invaluable resource who taught me how to effectively convert a large group of individuals into a cohesive unit with a perspective of the big picture. Such skills will serve one well in nearly any work-environment, and leaving college with over one year of real-world work experience probably won’t hurt, either. 

Nationally, despite the great emphasis universities place on global education and international experience, less than 1 in 500 engineers study abroad. Although this statistic is higher at top international institutions like Duke, I am an ardent proponent of the value produced by combining technical knowledge with experiences that lead to alternative and even obscure methods of learning that will meet the demands of 21st century social and technological challenges. As pointed out by Dean Katsouleas in his Prism Magazine article titled “New Challenges, Same Education,” many of the 21st century’s most complex social issues that require technical innovation cannot be solved by technology alone. They will require engineers with skills rounded out by knowledge of business, policy, and human nature, today most of which are “inherently global.”  I am forever grateful to Duke, Pratt, and DukeEngage for allowing me prepare for this future in this unique and exceptional way.