(Brad Elliott / Westmont College photo)
Westmont College students got the opportunity to hear directly from microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus, who paid a visit to Murchison Gymnasium for a Friday convocation after speaking at the Westmont President’s Breakfast earlier that morning.
Four panelists were selected from the student body to pose questions to Yunus about his Nobel Prize-winning work in microfinance, a method of lending small amounts of money to bring individuals and their families out of poverty.
Cynthia Toms Smedley, Westmont’s recently appointed director of global education, served as the panel’s moderator.
The panelists included fourth-year political science major Kristabel Stark, fourth-year economics and business major James Sievers, fourth-year English major Andy Wood and second-year biology and business major Kha-ai Nguyen.
Before the event began, the four panelists had the opportunity to meet Yunus.
“He was very genial and very friendly,” Wood said. “He was very gracious to us as students,” Stark added.
Sievers said he enjoyed Yunus’ “humble demeanor.” When awarded the Westmont leadership award at the Westmont President’s Breakfast, he noted, Yunus had removed the medal from around his neck and returned it to the presenters before beginning his talk to the more than 700 guests.
Yunus advocated his idea of social business, which he described as “a nondividend company” that will reinvest the money it earns and “continue to do the job.” He observed that, often with philanthropy, “the money doesn’t come back” but “social business money has endless life.”
At both the breakfast and convocation, Yunus emphasized his optimism for the potential of the younger generation.
When asked by Stark about the role Yunus hopes to see young students play in the microfinance efforts of the future, he stated his belief that “the young generation of today (is the most powerful) in the history of mankind” because of the instant communication and access to information it has been given by modern technology.
“The world will be very different in your hands,” he told the students.
When asked by Wood what his goals for the coming decade were, he replied: “To get into your mind.”
Several of the student panelists were hesitant to embrace Yunus’ sweepingly optimistic vision about the eradication of world poverty.
Sievers said that although he appreciated his “optimism and idealism,” he believed that the details of implementing microfinance on a large scale would be “messier” than Yunus made it seem.
Sievers expressed the need to adapt Yunus’ broad framework for microfinance to “cultural particulars,” which he hopes to put in practice when he travels with professor Rick Ifland’s “Business at the Bottom of the Pyramid” class to Haiti next week.
Nguyen also expressed worries about the possibility of applying Yunus’ ideas. Although she said she “wasn’t satisfied with what he said about applying principles of microfinance to urban America,” she also expressed great admiration for Yunus’ idealism.
“His idealism has gotten him really far ...,” she said. “Being idealistic is not a bad thing.”
Although Wood was also initially skeptical, he reported experiencing a shift during the convocation.
“My whole outlook went from being a skeptic to being an enthusiast,” he sad, explaining he was influenced by the fact that Yunus “genuinely believes man can be selfless.”
“I’m encouraging everybody to write social fictions,” Yunus advised after explaining how he believes it is necessary for individuals to imagine creative solutions to social problems, then make them happen.
“Don’t take anything as impossible,” he urged the audience, noting that, through imagination and innovation, he believes the next generation will “make the list of impossible shorter and shorter.”