Summer Entrepreneurial Experiences

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The Good Stuff

Thursday, July 23, 2015 1:22 pm

Last week in a long-distance phone-call with my dad, in the midst of me complaining about a lack of air-conditioning and running water, he interrupted me by simply saying “do you need to come home?” After reading some of my blog posts and e-mails I had sent, he was concerned. It seemed to him like I was very scared, very lonely, and very tired. The same day, I got a text from a friend which expressed a sense of jealousy over my “super cool” summer. She had been following my pictures on social media and couldn’t believe how much fun I was having. It seemed to her like work was just one long trip to paradise.

So which version is the truth? The answer is both, but not because my trip is somewhere in the middle of these two realities. As far as personalities go, I am a fairly level-headed individual. I would describe myself as being “complacently contempt” in most situations, rarely experiencing and most definitely not expressing any extremes on the emotional spectrum. (This greatly annoys my mother who is often convinced I don’t feel anything at all) Here, however, I have found myself opening up to the whole array of possible emotions, subject to change on a whim without a moment’s notice. I have the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Every moments consists of intense despair, triumph, joy, or humility.

Thus far in my blog, I have purposely chose to highlight the parts of my experience which have been difficult, lonely, and scary in order to avoid over-romanticizing life in the Caribbean. Since I have previously focused on the more emotionally demanding (although fulfilling) aspects of my experience, I am going to use the remainder of this post to expand on some of the many enjoyable and uplifting moments.

For starters, my office is an amazing place to work. My company is a truly phenomenal not-for-profit organization that has a smart, holistic, and realistic approach to poverty alleviation in the Dominican Republic. Despite the fact I barely speak their language, my coworkers welcomed me with open-arms into their tight-knit office community of only eight staff-members. They patiently repeat their sentences to me and listen as I fumble around for vocabulary. They talk to me about their families, their beliefs, and their dreams. They bring me chocolate and let me practice driving their motorcycles. When I go out into the field to bank meetings, the Esperanza clients never fail to invite me into their poverty-stricken homes for hugs, kisses, and a home-cooked meal. The office is never short on laughter or good food and I am so genuinely excited to go to work every morning that I usually arrive thirty minutes early.

Outside the workplace, I also have a team of community members eager to offer their love and help. I have a host-mom who sneaks into my room in order to wash and fold all my laundry and who is losing sleep over the fact I have not gained enough weight. I have a gang of neighborhood children who eagerly invite me to play stickball and marbles. I have a favorite coffee-shop where I like to sit and read in the afternoons, and where I am often surprised with free cake and cookies. I have a group of middle-aged women who taught me to shake my ass Dominican-style to a Pitbull song. It’s hard to complain when you live in paradise.

I also have my wonderful weekend crew of American interns. It’s amazing how close we have gotten after only two months, especially considering we only see each other for two days out of every week. While our time together is short, it is most definitely intense. There is nothing that will bond four radically different kids together like ripping them away from everything they knew to be comfortable. We’ve cliff-jumped. We’ve gone paragliding. We’ve cave-dived. We’ve wasted the day sleeping on the beach. We’ve stayed up all night, pretty much every night we’re together, just talking. We’ve become a family.

My internship has not been without its fair-share of hardship, but I’ve gotten more than my share of fun as well. It would be an outright lie to say that life is just one long spring break here, but I wouldn’t trade a second of it. The good and the bad, the scary and the silly, have worked together to create an unforgettable and life-altering experience that I will be both incredibly heartbroken and ready to say goodbye to come next week.

Responsibility

Thursday, July 9, 2015 12:07 pm

One of the most beneficial lessons I’ve learned during my internship thus far is how to be completely responsible for myself. I have a great job with very little structured guidelines, a boss who lives in a different city, and total independence over my own whereabouts/safety. This isn’t riding a bike without training wheels—it’s walking a tightrope over a crocodile pond without a net. There is nobody to get me from point A to point B; nobody to warn me what foods are safe to eat; nobody to tell me what streets are safe to walk on. Even if there was someone to tell me what to do, I probably wouldn’t understand them anyways—still waiting to magically wake up speaking fluent Spanish, but in the meantime I’m getting really good at charades.

On a professional level, I’ve become comfortable with tackling assignments head on, without the step-by-step assurance of a supervisor. I like having the responsibility to complete a project without detailed instructions on how to do it, just the expectation it gets done. It’s cool using my accounting background to help create micro-finance marketing material and write stories on the client testimonials. I have a lot of creative freedom with my job and it has made me become more confident in my ideas.

The appreciation I’ve developed for my professional strengths can probably be attributed to the growth I’ve seen in my personal independence. Just because I live in a tropical paradise, doesn’t mean life’s a beach. I can’t whine to my friends when things aren’t going my way or have Daddy hold my hand when I feel scared. I spend a lot of time alone. A lot. It’s no secret that I can be a little spacy at times, often lost in thought or with my head in the clouds so it’s definitely good for me to be forced to stay alert and in control. I can’t be shy and sweet here, expecting everything to fall into place for me like it usually does. It’s amazing what you can adapt to when thrown headfirst into a new situation, and I like that I’ve had to utilize my own capabilities opposed to relying on others to take care of me when things get tough.

No electricity? Buy a flashlight.

No running water? Use a bucket.

Men grab at you in the street? Carry a knife.

A surprising feat that has done wonders for my confidence and sense of accomplishment is mastering the art of traveling alone. It may seem small, but, trust me, you don’t know fear until you’ve trekked across the Dominican Republic using nothing but public transportation. Every weekend all of the Esperanza interns gather together from our respective cities to hit the beach and enjoy island life. Since I live the farthest away from any of the other staff, this almost always means I’m on my own in getting to wherever we decide to go. Since I am by no means in any position to pass up an opportunity for English, I eagerly risk my time, dignity, and life getting there. I honestly don’t think there are any road rules here, so it’s always a bumpy ride. I’ve quickly grown accustomed to motorcycle rides for three (or four), car rides in the back of pickups, and van rides cramming 30 people into 10 seats.

Need to travel across the country? Take a 3 hour bus ride. Then a 1 hour motorcycle. Take a boat if your feel a little crazy. Then 2 hours sitting on a strangers lap while crammed in a public car.

Abandoned by you driver in the middle of the highway? Stick out your thumb and wait for a nice guy on a motorcycle to drive by.

Get lost in an alleyway on your way to the bus station? Knock on a stranger’s door and pray he’s not a serial killer.

After just six weeks, it’s amazing to look back and think about the things that used to scare me before coming here. It’s funny because I had always thought courage was one of my strongest points–I like to snowboard and cliff-jump. I’ve gone bungee jumping and zip-lining. I have horror-movie marathons and a fondness for snakes and spiders. Yet, after coming here and confronting new challenges completely on my own, I’ve realized just how many things I was scared of. I was scared of talking to strangers and scared of being in charge. I was scared of letting people down and, at times, scared of sticking up for myself. The really hard, really shocking, and really wonderful moments I’ve had so far have given me more than just a collection of really great and hilarious party stories. It’s through the little victories I have each day (and the 800 billion hours of alone time I have to reflect on them) that I’ve learned what it really means to be tough.

A Day in the Life

Tuesday, June 30, 2015 5:45 pm

My day starts promptly at 4:30 AM. There is no need for an alarm clock here in the DR, thanks to the lovely gang of roosters who hang outside my window. Since its impossible to get back to sleep once my bird friends decide to give me a wakeup call, I typically roll of out bed (drenched in sweat from a 90 degree, no AC kind of night), grab my sneakers, and head out for a quick run. Back in the States, I love running. I’m one of those freaks who can enjoy 10 miles before class or break a six minute mile without breaking a sweat.Here on the island, not so much. Considering I’ve resorted to sprinting down the boardwalk while crying hysterically in terror as stray dogs chase after me, morning runs have quickly turned from my daily dose of therapy to my very own personal nightmare. The fact that pedestrians have ZERO right of way or that I live on top of a monstrous hill does not help my case either. If I wasn’t habitually ingesting my body weight in rice and pina coladas, I probably would skip exercise entirely; but, alas, at least I’m building character.

After my pathetic excuse for a run, I head straight to the shower to check whether or not my house has running water that day. It’s very hit or miss in the Dominican, so the answer is often no and I must opt for the handy shower bucket or half a pack of baby wipes in order to rinse off. My host mom, Sara, is a phenomenal cook and she has declared it her mission from God to put some meat on my shrimpy frame so breakfast usually consists of a delicious spread of coffee, fruit, a homemade smoothie, and three grilled cheese sandwiches.

I usually get to the office just in time for the 8:00 AM morning meeting—although I could not tell you in the least what is discussed. I naively thought I would come into this internship and quickly pick up Spanish out of pure necessity and immersion. Unfortunately, over a month has gone by and that has not been my experience. Progress is slow with a capital S. I developed a habit of rotating a response of “no comprendo” “no entiendo” or simply “Que???” after every question thrown my way that isn’t “Como estas?” My Connecticut accent is probably the sorriest thing you have ever heard speaking Dominican Spanish because nobody ever has the slightest clue what I’m saying. Even when I know I am talking 100% grammatically correct, Dominicans never understand a word coming out of my mouth. You cannot imagine how discouraging it is to carefully plan out a simple statement only to be met with the response of “no hablo ingles.” It takes every ounce of self-control my body has to not lurch forward and scream “I’M NOT SPEAKING ENGLISH!!”

After the morning meeting, I head out to conduct my interviews in the field. (I discussed this practice & its impact on me in great detail in my previous blog post) I’m typically back in the office around 2:00 PM, just in time for lunch. My coworkers cook a communal meal, which, unfortunately for me, limits my vegetarian options to a line-backer portion of plain rice and, if I’m really lucky, a side of beans. After turning myself into a rice dumpling, the remainder of my day is spent using my photos and interviews to create written stories and marketing material for Esperanza to use in attracting donors. Thankfully, I get to do all my writing in English, which makes my job a lot easier. I genuinely love the work I’m doing and the organization I work for, so I’m never bored gathering or creating content. I’m really excited about the fusion between a financially-based company and the more creative/writing-intensive aspects of my job. It’s made me think a lot about my future and different career opportunities I might be able to apply my accounting degree towards.

After work, I like to treat myself to an ice-cream cone and sit on the pier while taking in the gorgeous Caribbean scenery. The blue waters, the white sand, the lush green coconut trees—it never gets old. I end my day with another fantastic (usually fried) meal prepared by Sara and an episode of Caso Cerrado (think Latina Judge Judy meets Dr. Phil meets Divorce Court). My host family has two kids around my age, but we’ve long since exhausted all 3 possible conversations I’m capable of conducting in Spanish so after an episode or two I usually retire to my room. Since I have no Wifi and little electricity, I spend a couple chapters holed up in my mosquito net with a flashlight and Atlas Shrugged before passing out from exhaustion—at 8:30 pm.

Interviews in Los Campos

Wednesday, June 24, 2015 11:58 am

When you think of internships in the realm of finance, you think of cubicles, suits, and Microsoft Excel. At Bank of Esperanza it’s all motorcycles, converse, and a leather-bound notebook. My workday starts at 8 am, when I show up to the office slathered in bugspray, utilize my 10 minutes of Wifi to check my email and send some very important Snapchats, and hop on the back of a motorcycle where I am sandwiched between a driver and my very pregnant coworker. I clutch on for dear life as we drive up to an hour over highways and dirt-roads (sorry mom–no helmet) to reach the various “campos,” where loan meetings take place.

The loan meetings are in different neighborhoods across the island and typically involve groups of 15-25 associates who have taken a microloan (average $220 each) from Esperanza. The start of each meeting begins with a prayer and a small lesson on health or business before the loan officer collects the biweekly payments. You often have to wait several hours for the associates to figure out a means to pay, which can be difficult to watch as they tell stories on how they need the money for their kids to eat or go to school. While I want more than anything to jump in and offer the payments they can’t seem to come up with, the beauty of microfinance and the key to its success is that it is not a free handout. The loans present a path towards alleviating poverty by fostering financial independence and employment opportunities. (If you want to know more about how micro-lending works across the globe check out the book The Poor Will Be Glad by Peter Greer)

I sit through these meetings, armed with a notebook and camera, fully aware that everybody’s stares are directed at me. It is extremely uncommon for a white girl to venture into rural Dominicana, so my blue eyes and light hair often becomes extremely distracting to the group productivity. I am typically greeted with supermodel treatment everywhere I turn, and it is going to be a giant blow to my ego when I return to the States and am no longer granted free meals, jewelry, and compliments at every second of the day.

Through my time in the field conducting interviews I have uncovered the true purpose behind Esperanza and other similar microfinance organizations is not to create mini “rags to riches” moguls, but to offer a chance for stability. While some associates I have spoken to have seen incredible transformations in their businesses—from opening restaurants to having multiple store locations—the reality for most is a much different story. Most associates I talk to say that the loans have improved their businesses a little, or the loans helped give them seed money to start as a street vendor, but that their lives are not dramatically changed. It typically takes around 5 loan cycles to see a marked improvement in standard of living, but what the loans are out to offer, I am told time and time again, is a sense of security. When living in the thick of poverty, income is not steady. When money is made it is spent, not saved, and does not stretch far. This leaves the poor in a state of extreme vulnerability because if an emergency strikes, like their kid getting sick, in a time where there is no money coming in, they are left with no option but to visit a loan shark, taking out money often at 100% interest per day. With no means of paying off a debt of this kind, they are left in state of constant fear of the future.

Esperanza offers its associates a sense of self-worth and dignity by providing loans at a reasonable rate to help them with their businesses. The small loans provide the associates with access to cash during periods of little or no income generation, which provides security and in case of emergency. With these funds the associates are able to invest in their business and save a little in order to slowly build a portfolio over time and elevate their living conditions. I am often taken by the hand into the house or business of an associate. “Look at all this!” they say pointing to their modest inventory of a rack of T-shirts or display of bagged chips. “Look what I have now,” they boast patting the new concrete walls of their home or the television set.

I always end my interviews by asking the associates about their dreams for the future. While many talk about growing their business, buying a house, or improving their health, by far and large the most common answer I receive is education.

“I want to go to school.”

“I want to take a business class.”

“I want my son to study at university.”

I’ll tell you, it really makes me hate myself sometimes to see such a hungry desire to learn. At each mini lesson during the meeting, there is no shortage of questions, debate, or genuine curiosity. I’ve never been a slacker when it comes to academics, but I certainly act at times like school is a chore opposed to a blessing. I honestly want to go back and slap myself silly for every time I complained that class was too hard or my major was too boring—for every time I was on Facebook during Physics or watched Netflix instead of studying finance. Next year I will join less than 2% of the world’s population as a girl with a college degree, and an extremely high quality degree at that, so I really want to learn to appreciate this gift more thoroughly and hopefully I can use my time here as motivation when I’m struggling to not jump out the nearest window during a Tax Accounting exam.

www.esperanza.org

The Impact of Loneliness

Monday, June 15, 2015 4:39 pm

Before accepting this internship in the Dominican Republic, I had always considered myself to be fairly comfortable with being on my own. I don’t think any of my friends would mistake me for being overly chatty, or even particularly social, and it is not uncommon for me to take on new interests/challenges with a fierce sense of independence. I was prepared for a lot of hardships during my time here—thievery, poverty, malaria, and the works. I was not prepared for this intense feeling of loneliness.

Before I delve into some of the more difficult aspects of my new job, I do want to get one thing straight—working for Esperanza is the best thing that could have ever happened to me. This past year at Wake was a particularly difficult time for me in regards to academia and personal growth as I saw my motivation and creative curiosity take a complete nosedive as I progressed towards an accounting degree. My short time with Esperanza so far has been the catapult I was looking for to put me back on track and re-spark my appreciation for the fantastic education I have been afforded. Seeing nearly every course I have taken in the business school applied on a small scale to a growing business in an international setting with a nonprofit core has been incredibly eye-opening and allowed me to see my major in a new, exciting light. For the first time, I am in a setting where I can combine my business skills with my love for writing and adventure and, I’ve got to admit, it’s pretty cool.

That being said, this immersive experience is by far the most difficult and fundamentally challenging opportunity I have ever endured. My job entails a lot of daily travel where I get to speak with some amazing locals about their lives, their struggles, and their dreams. Witnessing various extremes of poverty on such a personal, up close level has given me a lot to think about as I find myself constantly evolving my previous definitions of abstract ideals such as humility, determination, love, and security.

The intensity of my last few weeks is greatly exasperated by my limited means of communication. Nobody in my daily life speaks a lick of English. Nobody I encounter during interviews. Nobody in my office. Nobody in my homestay. Nobody in my town. My Spanish comprehension and speaking abilities are limited to the most basic of needs, giving me zero opportunity to express any of the whirlwind of emotions I have been experiencing. It is excruciatingly isolating to sit in a meeting, on a bus, or at a dinner table where everybody is talking and laughing around you and you cannot understand a word. Loneliness comes not from being alone, but from the acute awareness of being an outsider. From not speaking the language, to not knowing the customs, to not looking the same, my lack of belonging has simultaneously manifested itself into a constant state of both fear and courage. Living in a home with little personal communication, no internet access, and limited electricity has given me an endless supply of quality thinking and reading time. My work in the field certainly provides me significant material for reflection, and it is both massively beneficial and enormously disturbing to have no distractions from your own thoughts.

An unexpected source of inspiration and self-awareness came this weekend when I made the three hour bus ride back to Santo Domingo to catch up with the other American interns. After we spent the week in our various cities and offices, I was greatly looking forward to the chance to relax, speak some English, and goof around in the Caribbean. While we certainly had a great time hitting the beach and laughing at each other’s stories of motoconcho rides, plumbing mishaps, and mysterious water-borne illnesses, the short trip was more than just a fun get-away from the more challenging days at work. With a unique bond of common experience and a newfound appreciation for the English language, the gift of communication was not wasted. There was something innocently genuine and Breakfast-Club reminiscent about four extremely unlikely new friends sitting on a hostel rooftop until four a.m. while playing cards and discussing everything from faith to politics to love without a hint of insincerity. As a notoriously closed-off individual, it normally takes me half a lifetime to warm up to others, so I was greatly surprised to find myself enjoying such honest and open conversations with a group of virtual strangers, but the candid earnestness and respect each vastly different kid showed for one another was the perfect supplement to the personal growth and change that has already started to take place after only a few weeks within the organization. While the work and living is hard here, it has already started to impact my world perspective and I am excited to see how I will continue to evolve over the next couple of months.

 

No Comprendo

Monday, June 8, 2015 4:58 pm

My time so far in the Dominican has been both incredibly wonderful and tremendously challenging. After spending my first few days completing internship training at Esperanza headquarters in Santo Domingo, I have since moved to my new home in Samaná, where I will be living for the next two months. Samaná, DR is a gorgeous (but tiny) beach town about three hours from the central office. Since all the interns were placed in different branch offices throughout the DR, it is all Spanish from here on out. I am the only English-speaker both in my work environment and homestay so my only chance for real communication comes on the weekends where I take 3 hours of public transportation to meet up with the other Americans so we can swap stories and embark on traveling adventures. (which, since they are all Texas kids, sometimes can feel like a foreign language of its own).

My Spanish-speaking ability is extremely limited, so right now I am perfecting the art of smiling and nodding along. Even when I manage to say something technically correct, my coworkers fail to understand because of my horrendous accent. I’m seriously working on improving my language skills, because I do not know how I will survive here if I continue to say “No comprendo” after every single sentence spoken to me. The office is located about five minutes from my house via motorcycle taxi (equal parts awesome and terrifying), but I’m probably averaging triple that due to my complete inability to direct the driver—For the record, mixing up “derecho” (straight) and “derecha” (right) can get you into major directional trouble as can pronouncing your hometown of Samaná as “Salmon” when it is more closely related to “sauna.”

I am starting to get used to the fact that probably zero of my coworkers or host family members will learn (or even ask) what my name is. It is very common in the DR community to give somebody a nickname that is descriptive of their appearance, flattering or not, so I’ve since grown accustomed to responding to calls of “RUBIA!” (blonde) and, my personal favorite, “GRINGA FLACA!” (skinny white-girl). So far, my workload has been fairly light, as I am supposed to be in observation mode, which means I just sit and nod along while listening to people at the office speak to each other in a language I do not understand. But, the hard part starts tomorrow, where I will forever after be spending the first half of each day traveling to different loan collection meetings in order to interview and observe the clients, known as “associates,” of Esperanza and creating marketing material off my findings. This is all to be conducted in Spanish, of course.

About Esperanza

Tuesday, June 2, 2015 5:07 am

Esperanza International, a not-for-profit organization, was started in 1995 by former MLB player David Valle and his wife Victoria after David spent time in the Dominican Republic playing baseball, where he witnessed the extreme poverty and need for help. 30% of the nation’s 10 million citizens live under the poverty line, with approximately 20% living in destitute poverty. What makes these numbers even more striking is the over 1 million undocumented Haitians currently living in the DR who are not accounted for in national poverty measurements.

Esperanza is focused on providing small loans and business training/development to local Dominicans and Haitians to use in the start of their own microbusinesses. Over the past 20 years, Esperanza has been met with great success having dispersed microfinance loans totaling $88.59 million to 178,385 “associates”. These loans, with an average size of $239, have resulted in the production of 68,396 local businesses thus far, with an exceptionally impressive repayment rate of 98.09%.

If you want to learn more about Esperanza and its impact in the community check out this awesome video: https://vimeo.com/62437117

While I am so excited to finally see concepts (including interest rates, time value of money, accounts receivable, and so forth) I have learned about in my accounting/finance classes at Wake become relevant and interesting to me in a real world situation, and are most definitely vital to the organization as a whole, my particular role in the company has virtually no need for any sort of financial background. In all honesty, I would have been much more prepared for this work if I had a major in Spanish (duh), Anthropology, Journalism, or Communications.

My official internship title, “Communications Field Intern,” gives me the responsibility of visiting different Esperanza banks to interview those who have benefitted from the loans and providing written stories, photos, and video productions of the associates and their small businesses, which can be used to promote Esperanza and inspire sponsorship through their website and Social Media platforms. So, in the spirit of shameless promotion, check out Esperanza’s new website to learn more and get involved: http://www.esperanza.org/

… And follow my work via their Instagram this summer! @esperanza_international

…And don’t forget twitter!! @Esperanza_Intl

…Or shoot us a Facebook like if you’re feeling generous: https://www.facebook.com/Esperanza.International?fref=ts

 

I’ll post more on my adventure here with Esperanza next week after spending some time with loan clients and local employees while soaking up some rays on the beach!

 

 

 

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