Back to School

By Bill Nichols | Fall 2014

Printer Friendly

Page 2 of 2

It all started when Carolyn Woo, our former dean who is now the CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), told me that I needed to understand more about the plight of people in developing countries and the challenges faced by those who are the poorest and most vulnerable. She said I needed to understand how business can help these countries move forward, which is the mission of Mendoza College—business as a force for good. Carolyn wanted me to appreciate how much developing countries need business expertise to develop in sustainable ways.

When she suggested I travel with one of the BOTFL groups, I thought, “What the heck. Why not just enroll in the course?” And by that, I mean I would sit in on all the class sessions and try to do all the homework. 

Very seldom does my day end with a work-related dinner conversation with my spouse. But I found out that more often than not, Tuesday and Thursday evenings, we’d talk about what happened in class. The readings and class discussion were so different from anything that I’d ever done. I’m an accounting professor. I teach structured courses—corporate financial reporting and sustainability accounting and reporting. I find these subjects thought-provoking, but they’re not designed to ask the big questions: What is poverty? What is self-respect? What is corruption? What are the roles of laws and compassion? I think I’m an educated person, but I hadn’t thought deeply about these issues. It was fascinating.

What was even more fascinating and inadvertently intimidating were these students. Their backgrounds were so superior to mine in these conversations. Just as an aside, I’m 67. I was within one year of being twice as old as the oldest MBA student. They have very different perspectives than I’ve ever had. It gave me an enormous amount of respect for the deep knowledge that our students have. In order to understand the context of developing countries, how people interact with each other, and the struggles they face, we needed to have conversations about very different things than accounting principles, rules and procedures.

 Homework included reading The Bottom Billion, which is about the lives of the people at the bottom of the pyramid. We also read encyclicals from Pope Leo XIII and Pope Benedict. Additional assignments included Catholic teachings on poverty, human rights and the distribution of wealth, and UN General Assembly reports on human trafficking. This wasn’t easy reading. 

My team—four Notre Dame MBAs, a law student and a peace studies graduate student— was assigned to a project sponsored by CRS. Every Thursday morning, we would Skype with the CRS staff in Rwanda. We were defining the problem to be addressed, drafting a Scope of Work document and fine tuning our in-country schedule. So that when we hit the ground, we knew exactly what we were doing.

The problem we addressed was nutrition activities for children under age 5. We agreed to review how messages about nutrition were being delivered to the Rwandan people. Malnutrition is a huge issue. People eat, they’re not starving, but their diet is problematic. Poor families fill up on root vegetables—especially cassava, which isn’t high in nutrients. Stunted growth in children is a big problem, one that has to be addressed in the child’s first thousand days—meaning from conception to two years—or it’s too late. Children won’t reach normal height and weight. Organs won’t fully develop. It can compromise their immune systems, affect their intelligence and shorten their lives.

We traveled to Rwanda for two weeks during Mendoza’s MBA interterm session and spring break. CRS works with community health workers to address nutrition
and other issues. We split up into groups of three. My group spent time in a village shadowing a community health worker. Mothers brought children to her house to be measured and weighed. She kept track with a pencil on a big spreadsheet like I used to do in accounting courses when I was an undergrad. She would take the child’s height and weight, measure the wrist, the length of the arm from the shoulders to the elbow, and the waist. She could tell from those metrics if the child was suffering from malnutrition. And if so, she sent the child’s mother to the hospital to obtain a special formula.

While in the field, I came to understand how important it is to have interviewing skills. You can easily download a lot of data about poverty from the Internet. But in the field, you need to know how to observe, how to ask questions. If you’re interviewing someone, you want to come away with a story. You have to be connected on the same level to get answers that are insightful. 

It was a great experience. It was a wonderful opportunity to better understand the way the world is now. We can’t pretend we don’t know what’s going on in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Somalia, or any place. As pointed out by Thomas Friedman, the world is flat. We are all connected in a single global network. 

On my desk sits a National Geographic-quality photo of a woman I met in Rwanda. She’s holding her infant son, who is suffering from malnutrition. Her eldest son, no more than 10 years old, travels many kilometers several days a week to fetch water that he carries home in a plastic container held by one arm and carefully balanced on his head. This photo serves as my constant reminder of those struggling throughout the world and a call for me to be part of the solution. A call that is heartfelt and timely as I now consider how best to serve others.


  • Salt and Light10
    Salt & Light 1411
    Salt & Light: Passionate About Human Dignity 1461
    Salt & Light: There's Always Room in the Inn 1462
    Karen Hildebrandt: Quiet Hero 2612
    John Weber: The Importance of Being Turtles 2613
    Mike Mannor: New Hope for Down Syndrome 2614
    Maggie Neenan-Michel: Born to Run 2615
    Kristin Collett-Schmitt: To Honor Mackenzie 2616
    Jamie O'Brien: Cultivating Children 2626
    Karen Slaggert: Suffer the Little Children 2627
    More Salt & Light 2628
    Patti Reinhardt: Survivor's Tale 2629
  • Taking Stock - Personal Essays1
    Everyday Grace: On Stories 1444
  • Class Notes3
    Class Notes 1435
    Future Domers 2641
    In Memoriam 2642
  • Ask More of Business1
    Ask More: Grounds & Hounds 2636
  • Web Exclusive1
    Salt & Light: Passionate About Human Dignity 1461
    Salt & Light: There's Always Room in the Inn 1462
    "Shark Tank" Judge Visits Mendoza 1464
  • In Memoriam1
    In Memoriam 2642
  • Future Domers1
    Future Domers 2641
  • Mendoza News5
    A Meeting of Minds to Help the Poor 1340
    New Faculty Profile: Meet Charlice Hurst 1341
    A Matter of Trust 1352
    College News Briefs 1449
    Faculty News Briefs 2630
  • Mendoza Profiles2
    On and Off the Fence 1355
    A Poignant Journey 1373
  • Alumni Community4
    Class Notes 1435
    The Hessert Brothers: And They're Off 2547
    Kenn Ricci: Like Father, Like Son 2545
    Charles Florance: Inspirational Spirits 2546
  • First Person1
    Back to School 1443