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James Fund Returns to Haiti to Check on their Investments

Lauren Williamson ’15 of Leesville, S.C., was visiting Haiti May 19-23 along with Dr. Philip Swicegood and two classmates, Victoria DaSilva ’15 of Providence, R.I., and Ryan Carter ’15 of Charlotte, N.C.

As is often the case in international travel and learning, something unexpected caught her eye. Browsing through a souvenir market in a downtown neighborhood, she found an English-language accounting book among some paintings on the very back shelf. Although the copyright date was long past, she quickly realized this was the same text that her mother had once studied in college.

“Even in a small corner of the developing world, we found an accounting book — it’s part of the universal language of free enterprise,” Williamson says, “and it’s a sign that some of the concepts that Wofford students and others are trying to share in Haiti can take hold.”

The students were visiting Haiti as representatives of the James Fund, a student-led investment group founded with a $100,000 gift from Trustee R. Michael James ’73. It provides an avenue for Wofford students in finance and accounting to develop practical investment and leadership skills.

“The James Fund projects are a unique way to put a liberal arts imprint onto our offerings,” says Swicegood, the James Professor of Finance and coordinator of the program. “I don’t know of any colleges or universities that have an undergraduate program like ours.

“At the end of each year, we think it’s important for faculty and students to go together on fact-finding trips like this one to Haiti,” Swicegood says. “One thing that we know with confidence after several years: the microloans work.”

Here’s how the microloan program operates.

Each year, the student leaders create a pool of new loan money from the returns of James Fund investments. A Haitian physician, Dr. Eugene Maklin, helps identify qualified borrowers and serves as a counselor.

For 2014-2015, there were two large groups of clients. About 45 loans of $300 each were designated for women who were organized into communities of five or more borrowers each. The women used this money to buy food, clothing and household items for resale in local markets. After repaying the loans, they used the profits for educational expenses for their children. At the end of the year, those who paid off their loans in full received bonuses from the fund and were eligible to renew for another year.

The other loans covered the cost of seed and other expenses for about 50 peanut farmers, who have been able to harvest and sell their crop to a local company making nutritional supplements for undernourished Haitian children.

Williamson had heard much about Haiti from her grandfather, the Rev. Needham Rodgers Williamson ’61, who has made a series of mission trips to the island. Lauren had worked with an opthamologist refurbishing used eyeglasses for him to distribute to Haitians who needed them. On this trip, however, she enjoyed the chance to see the country for herself, even though the weather was unpleasantly warm.

“I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the school children,” Williamson says. “They wrote French words on the bulletin board and taught us a few expressions in their language. This was an interesting process because Victoria is fluent in Portuguese and I know a little Spanish. Becoming conversational and friendly across the language gap was enlightening for all of us.”

DaSilva, managing partner of the James Fund for the 2014-15 academic year, adds that she enjoyed a special challenge when she explained through an interpreter that she wanted to learn how to walk with a basket balanced on her head, as some Haitians do.

“The women thought I was hilariously inept, and I guess that was the truth. None of us will ever forget that experience!” says DaSilva. “We also welcomed the chance to go on ‘nightly advertures,’ seeing the city and meeting the people. The Haitians proved to be welcoming and friendly.”

The Wofford students agreed that they felt more comfortable on the streets in Haiti than might have been the case in some U.S. cities, even though they had to adjust to standing out in a crowd.

“Our dinners were memorable,” DaSilva says. “It was my first experience with goat meat, but the chefs prepared it expertly.”

DaSilva says that while “Haiti still has a distance to go to catch up with some of its neighbors, things are moving in the right direction. The women proved to us that they are willing to work very hard to educate their children and give them a better life. Haiti is a place where the many people are now having their first opportunity to experience freedom and economic opportunity, and Wofford College is pleased to be playing a small role in that process.”