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Academics Alum Features

Trip nets E-Scholars new experiences, new contacts

With the exception of a year ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic allowed for no travel at all, members of the Entrepreneur Scholars (E-Scholars) Program at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University have traditionally taken a Christmas-break trip to China.

“There are three things I try to look for when choosing a destination,” program director Paul Marsnik said. “No. 1 – is it a place that will give our students a chance to push outside their comfort zone?

“No. 2 – do we have support on the ground? Are there alumni or other contacts in the country we can learn from and who will help us?

“And No. 3 – is that country a major player on the global business scene? China certainly checks all three of those boxes.”

But when travel limitations related to the pandemic continued to rule China out as a destination this year, Marsnik had to find another location, one that boasts surprisingly strong ties to CSB+SJU: Bosnia and Herzegovina – a nation once ravaged by the armed conflict that followed its independence and the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

“(CSB+SJU Board Member and former SJU Interim President) Dan Whalen did a great job leading the effort to bring a number of students here in the early 2000s so we have a very strong alumni base over there,” Marsnik said. “Those are graduates who have returned home and are doing some really innovative things. There was a very real network for us to tap into there.”

Yet it was a choice Marsnik still had to sell to the initially skeptical nine students who would make the trip alongside he and Margrette Newhouse, director of the Donald McNeely Center for Entrepreneurship at CSB+SJU.

But they soon came around to embracing the idea.

“I had my doubts going in, but it turned out to be a phenomenal experience,” said Durran Thompson, a junior finance major. “I didn’t know much about Bosnia and Herzegovina, and with the current COVID situation, I had no idea what to expect. But we ended up getting to meet a lot of people and had the chance to learn about their backgrounds.

“A lot of them went through some really rough times when they were younger because of the war. It’s crazy to see how far they’ve come now. I was able to take a lot of inspiration from hearing their stories.”

Students are required to reach out to a contact in the country ahead of time and line up an in-person meetings with entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial support organizations and individuals that could provide insights for the ventures they are launching on campus.

One group that both Marsnik and Newhouse cited as being especially helpful was Nešto Više,  a non-governmental organization established in 1997 by a group of young people experienced in working with organizations from the civil society sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Four leaders of the group are CSB+SJU graduates and the two schools have had a number of ties to the group dating back to 2003 when faculty members participated in a conference in the country on education.

The group has also regularly hosted interns from all disciplines for many years prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We believe that education is kind a solution for many problems, and (U.S.) education is quite different than ours,” said the Aleksandar Bundalo, the group’s executive director. “We want to (provide an) opportunity to young people from our country to learn more about the U.S.,  and of course, for U.S. students to gain experience in other countries. So, long story short, there are two aspects of having Jonnies and Bennies here: One, to allow individuals to meet other cultures and learn new things; And, society-wise, to help people to better understand what Bosnia and Herzegovina and the U.S. are – (to get a) different perspective than (just) the news perspective.”

But beyond getting to know entrepreneurs in another part of the world, Thompson said the trip provided the opportunity to bond with the other members of this year’s E-Scholars cohort.

The group traveled to cities like Sarajevo and Mostar and also spent time at a ski resort.

“Paul always tells us about the three levels of the circle,” Thompson said. “There is the inner circle which is known as the safe zone. Then there’s the middle circle, which is the learning zone. Then there’s the outer circle which is your danger zone. This is where you’re too far away from your comfort zone and you begin to panic. We should always stay in the middle circle because this is where the most growth happens.”

“This trip had us right there in the learning zone. It was the first time we all have traveled together and it was nice to be able to interact. You really get to know people a lot better when you travel with them.”

The trip was not without challenges. Newhouse and two students tested positive for COVID before returning home and had to stay an additional six days.

“We had a lot of people rally around and support us,” Newhouse said. “They helped with arrangements and figuring out what was required to get us back to the U.S. I think that’s such a strong testament to the strength of the alumni network we have here.

“Wherever you go, all over the world, you find people you can count on for support.”

Overall, Marsnik said the trip was a successful one and he is definitely considering going back.

“I think the students really enjoyed the experience and we got a lot out of it,” he said. “If I had to guess, I’d say there’s definitely a good chance we’ll be going back.”