FHSU students learn by doing, in own community and in another country

By Diane Gasper-O’Brien

HAYS, Kan. — They wanted their students to experience hands-on learning in another country. But Jessica Heronemus and Angela Walters didn’t expect such raving results.

A group of 22 Fort Hays State University students returned from an adventure to St. Lucia earlier this week in what some are calling the trip of their lives.

Heronemus, instructor of economics, finance and accounting, is an advisor for the Everybody’s Business Learning Community at Fort Hays State. Walters, associate professor of Informatics, holds the same position for the Innovate! Learning Community.

A learning community is a group of 20 to 30 first-year students at FHSU who share common interests, take classes together and live on the same floor in McMindes Hall.

Thanks to a generous donation by an FHSU grad, the Everybody’s Business and Innovate! Learning Communities are able to put $30,000 each year for four years, from 2014-17, toward an educational trip that involves entrepreneurship.

Last year, Heronemus and Walters took a group to Barbados. This year, it was St. Lucia where a total of 14 students who just completed their freshman year were joined by eight older students who served as peer mentors. St. Lucia is a small island in the eastern Caribbean Sea which is still struggling economically following a recession in 2009.

FHSU students were paired up with young entrepreneurs in St. Lucia, who ended up teaching the Americans as much as they learned themselves.

“It was an eye-opening experience of another culture,” Walters said, “and the interactive aspect of the trip was amazing.”

Dalton Steinert, Otis sophomore, spent the past year in Everybody’s Business, thinking it would “make the transition from high school to college easier.”

“I thought, ‘This has my name written all over it,’ ” said Steinert, an accounting major at FHSU who had never been out of the country before the St Lucia trip. “And this trip opened my eyes a lot. I got to see another country and was able to grow my skills at the same time.”

Steinert’s group helped a young vendor who catered party foods figure out her profit margin, come up with a business name and logo and set up an email account.

“She didn’t have email — hard for us to imagine,” he said.

“It’s a great experience for our students, working with young entrepreneurs who are starting up businesses,” Heronemus said. “Sometimes it’s physical labor. In Barbados, they helped build a fish farm. This year, they helped with a fertilizer plant.”

Other helpful tasks included helping develop a Web presence, making brochures and setting up a Facebook page.

“It was a very powerful trip, to get in and see these struggling entrepreneurs,” Walters said. “The students were all excited to realize they do have knowledge, that they do have skills to give to these people.”

Heronemus agreed. “It’s an amazing thing to watch and be a part of. It’s very different than what they were raised with.”

Walters said the main theme of the notes students wrote after the trip focused on the experience of witnessing first hand another culture and how it solidified their career choice.

“It’s neat to watch the knowledge exchange happen,” Heronemus said. “They really embraced the experience.”

That went for the peer mentors as well.

Emily Leiker, a junior-to-be from Hays, was part of Everybody’s Business as a freshman in 2013-14. A tourism and hospitality major, she wanted to “give freshmen the same experience I had.”

Heronemus said the peer mentors are a vital part of the concept because “they serve as excellent role models for the freshmen.”

“Last year, I wasn’t that familiar with the financial part of it,” said Leiker, whose group was in charge of helping young farmers. “You don’t realize how much you know until you help other people.”

Helping others is what interests Steinert, who has signed on as a peer mentor in Everybody’s Business for the 2015-16 school year.

“The peer mentors help shape people’s lives and make college easier for a lot of people,” he said, “and I want to do that.”

And, Steinert will be sure to tell those younger students one of the most important lessons he learned on his learning communities trip as a freshman — an appreciation for the life he lives in the United States.

“It opened my eyes a lot,” Steinert said. “I got to see how things are in an under-developed country. They don’t have the luxuries we have, but they still find joy and happiness with what they have. They make do. It made me see that we don’t have it rough it all.”


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