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The first ever Social Enterprise Consulting class traveled to Costa Rica during spring break with Dr. Laura (Cleek ’88) Phillips and Dr. Sarah Easter (’06). The eight students in the class were tasked with helping Costa Rican women develop experiential tourism businesses within their communities.
The students were based in a small town in central Costa Rica called Turrialba, where they worked with Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE), an agricultural research school.
Dr. Eliecer Vargas, a professor at CATIE, had obtained a research grant to help women entrepreneurs develop their experiential tourism businesses. Experiential tourism, also known as immersion travel, is a form of tourism in which visitors experience a destination by engaging on a personal level with its history, people, culture, food and environment.
The ACU students provided consulting work for the collection of female-run businesses known as Red de Emprendedoras del Turismo Sostenible de Turrialba (RETUS). The students visited three nearby villages in which the businesses were located – Santa Cruz, Guyabo and Mallejones.
“We were hoping to get a first-hand view of RETUS and experience their products personally,” Phillips said. “We also wanted the students to be able to meet some of these female entrepreneurs so they had a better idea of the group they were serving through the consulting project.”
As part of the course, students were asked to deliver a report outlining the target market within Texas for the experiential tourism businesses. By experiencing first-hand the activities provided by these businesses, the students were able to gain a better understanding of the tourism offerings. Among other activities, the students received lessons in pottery, bread making and salsa dancing. They tried new foods and ate meals prepared by women of the communities.
“The experience was so eye-opening to the fact that life is just simply done differently in different places,” said Luke Stevens, marketing major from Montgomery. “These differences make the culture so rich and unique, but also help to highlight the similarities we share with all people around the world. Growing my appreciation and understanding of the international community was one of the most important takeaways.”
Easter said she loves traveling with students because she is able to see how their assumptions about the world are questioned. “I think it’s such a great experience for students to be able to expand their horizons and to consider using their skills in different ways as they are developing as future business leaders,” she said.
Each student received a $1,000 scholarship provided by College of Business Administration donors specifically for studying abroad. Southwest Airlines partnered with the group to provide tickets for the flights. These contributions made it possible for each member to participate in the week-long experience for just $250 each.
In preparation for the trip, the students were given assignments about experiential tourism, consulting, target market assessment, Costa Rican culture, the entrepreneurial environment in Costa Rica and more. The class also spent time working through materials provided by the Halbert Center for Missions and Global Service and used by Global Service teams.
“While this was not specifically a Global Service Trip, we wanted students to think about their project through the lens of serving others from a faith-based perspective,” Phillips said. “I think this prep work helped them approach the trip in a service-minded way. Everyone had a great attitude and adjusted gracefully when things didn’t go as expected.”
The professors plan to take another group of students this spring and hope to offer other experiential learning opportunities for students to work on projects for real clients.
“We’re hoping to continue that partnership in Costa Rica, and we’ve already been in talks with Dr. Vargas about expanding it,” Easter said.