Maryland students go abroad to immerse themselves in, say, the ancient architecture of Greece, the art of Italy or the culture of Japan. But one class this year dived into an intense international experience as business consultants without leaving the Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center.

Nineteen teams of students in the QUEST Honors Program—nine in the fall, and 10 this semester—have been helping African entrepreneurs to improve their enterprises as part of the “Designing Innovative Systems” course. Yesterday, the entrepreneurs attended class after transatlantic journeys to hear the students’ final presentations.

Like students in study abroad programs, those in the QUEST course learn about foreign cultures and ultimately more about themselves, said Joseph Bailey, executive director of QUEST.

“My hope is to push them outside of their comfort zone,” Bailey said.

The program connected students with entrepreneurs through a partnership with the U.S. African Development Foundation, an organization that invests in local businesses “that improve the lives and livelihoods of people in poor communities in Africa,” according to the USADF website.

The students in this semester’s class, who represent majors within the Robert H. Smith School of Business, A. James Clark School of Engineering and College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, relied in part on reports and recommendations produced by students who took the same class in the fall.

One team partnered with Shepherd's Mills, a Ghana-based rice business, to increase efficiency in the parboiling process as well as to provide greater access to clean water for business and community use.

Priscilla Bamfo, founder of Shepherd’s Mills, was excited to hear fresh perspectives that she hopes to implement when she returns to Ghana. 

“The level of commitment is really admirable, but you don’t get to see that from afar,” Bamfo said. “It was really good to come here and have that face-to-face interaction with them and listen to them knowing they put in that time and effort.”

Kellie Zhang ’21 said the class taught her the value of getting creative with the resources available—and seeking outside help when more expertise is needed. Her team tweaked its project with Shepherds’ Mills based on advice from Engineers Without Borders, a student group that supports developing communities through engineering projects, and other outside sources.

“Some of our recommendations would have been completely different” without such advice, Zhang said. “You need to dig deep to look outside of what you’re given and be resourceful.”

Other businesses that students partnered with included Mother’s Delivery Kit, which supplies birthing kits for mothers to improve safety during childbirth, and Wutiko, an online platform where users can build professional networks and find job opportunities. In addition to Ghana, the companies students worked with are located in Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda and South Africa.

Bamfo enjoyed the highly interactive experience with students over the past several months. 

“Each and every person comes with a fresh mind and different way of addressing the problem,” she said.