Out in the middle of a sugarcane field, under the shade of a tree, Mel Shuaipi, ’15, got her groove back, spending long hours in the heat while helping build a sustainable, community-focused microfinance program that’s outlasted her own time in the Dominican Republic.

But the journey to those sugarcane fields wasn’t a smooth and seamless one. Shuaipi came to Richmond for its international business program, but says she struggled during her first year on campus to connect her academic interests with her desire to make positive difference in the lives of others.

“I really disconnected from my academics in the beginning because they were on a fundamental, abstract scale,” Shuaipi says. “I had realized the summer before starting my first year that I couldn’t find satisfaction doing something where I felt like I wasn’t contributing to some other person’s well-being or happiness.”

That desire to give back is rooted, Shuaipi says, in her experience as an Albanian immigrant to the United States. Her parents left the country (and jobs as high school administrators and doctors) to work outside of their professional fields in a new and unfamiliar place. When she was applying to college, she took a leap of faith on Richmond — she was unable to visit any schools outside of Florida because her parents couldn’t take the time off.

Her second year things began to change. She applied for a Sophomore Scholars in Residence program (SSIR) on social entrepreneurship and pro-social behavior and began to connect the dots between the principles of finance and accounting to the hands-on work of social change. Her new obsession became microfinance. Her SSIR class took a trip to the Dominican Republic, where it visited Esperanza, a nonprofit offering microfinance loans to community members. Shuaipi saw opportunities for further growth.

Shuaipi applied for an internship at Esperanza and, funded by a Civic Fellowship, returned to the Dominican Republic the summer after her sophomore year to work in Esperanza's microfinance program. The next summer she secured a second Civic Fellowship to intern in the Dominican Republic with Community Enterprise Solutions, where she began to work on building community-centered banks and offering financial-literacy training to the Haitian workers who predominantly tend and harvest the island’s vast sugarcane fields.

Through her work, she realized the limits of some microfinance programs for meeting the needs of the most vulnerable workers. During the off-season, the average Haitian sugarcane worker makes around five dollars a week. In many ways, Shuaipi found that the microfinance model failed to account for what happens when clients can’t pay back a loan and literally have nothing to lose.

The model she worked with at Community Enterprise Solutions allows local Haitian sugarcane workers and their families to buy shares of a financial fund and solicit small loans from area savings and credit groups. Interest from the loans are paid back as a dividend to the shareholders. Participants in the program also receive financial education. Trained local leaders and NGO workers analyze data to oversee and assess the program and its effectiveness.

That endeavor requires both the building of long-term, sustainable relationships and the realization that sometimes the best thing to do is step back. Shuaipi’s proudest to say that her work helping train talent to run the program is some of the most important that she’s done. She still uses WhatsApp and Skype to check in regularly with the two Haitian-Dominican natives she trained to continue running the program after her departure.

This summer, Shuaipi will travel for a fourth time to the Dominican Republic to expand the community-directed cooperative program. Her project was recently selected from a competitive, national field of proposals for a $10,000 award under the Davis United World College Projects for Peace initiative.

Shuaipi brings that level of energy and commitment both abroad and at home. This spring, she’s continued to blend business and social change while leading a student-run consulting group’s efforts to solve mentor retention issues for Higher Achievement, a community partner of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE). A program director at the mentoring nonprofit was so impressed with the group members' work that she was genuinely shocked to find out they were students, not professionals.

“The Bonner Center was where a lot of my ideas about civic engagement and social justice developed,” Shuaipi adds. “I pretty much call the CCE my second home at this point.”

The lessons about applying specialized skill sets for social justice are ones that Shuaipi says first began to form during the three-and-a-half years she’s worked for the CCE and became fundamental to her goals while in the hot sugarcane fields on a sunny, distant island.

“That was really the turning point for me,” Shuaipi says. “I started to learn that business and social justice can come together. At the time I thought that business was this solely corporate thing.”