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Making a Difference in Costa Rica

Like many freshmen, I arrived at DePauw in August 1987, excited for the adventure that lay ahead, but unsure about what to do with my life. Having had an inspiring Spanish teacher in high school, Dr. Linda Elman, who is now an Associate Professor at DePauw, the only certainty was that I would major in Spanish with a minor in International Business. 

DPU offered the finest Modern Language professors and many opportunities to perfect my Spanish through immersion in other cultures.  I took advantage of them all -- Winter Term in Mission (WTIM) in Peru, Junior Year abroad in Barcelona, Spain and WTIM in Honduras.   It would not be exaggerating to say that these experiences changed my life.  It was after volunteering in some of the poorest parts of Latin America that I knew I wanted to use my Spanish degree to pursue a career in the not-for-profit world.

After graduation in 1991, with a full scholarship from Rotary International, I headed to England to earn my M.A. in Political Economy.  At the University of Essex, I was mentored by a remarkable professor who, many years before, had been mentor to Dr. Oscar Arias, the 1987 Nobel Peace Laureate and former president of Costa Rica.  Once again I learned how powerful an influence the right teachers can be. 

In 1995 I was offered my first overseas position with UNICEF Costa Rica. Since then, I have held leadership positions in distinguished non-profits including the United Way affiliate in Nicaragua and INCAE Business School, the top business school in Latin America founded by Harvard Business School in 1964.   For the last three years, I have worked as a consultant, training and coaching dozens of organizations on how to build their institutional capacity and develop sustainable fundraising programs.  In this role, I have collaborated with prestigious organizations such as the United States International Development Agency (USAID), Management Systems International (MSI), and Habitat for Humanity International.  Over the course of my career, I have helped raise more than $20 million (US) for the region. 

I am often asked how I do it….live in Latin America surrounded by so much poverty.  The question never ceases to surprise me as I consider myself lucky to be welcomed into so many people’ s lives and to have an opportunity to make a difference in them.  I am grateful that my two daughters, 11 and 8, are growing up with a sensitivity to cultural differences and the desire to use their lives to contribute positively to society, a passion I found while studying at DePauw.

Michelle Johnson Pierson

DPU 1991