Rosa Anais Chan López, the director of the social work department at Universidad Latina (ULatina) in Costa Rica, had been hoping a student would come along who shared her desire to break the norms of how social work is traditionally done. She got her wish, and more, in Eunice Soto Benavides, a fourth-year social work student who started at ULatina as a business administration major. Benavides did her first social work practicum with López as her advisor, and proved that she was interested in approaching the difficult job of being a social worker from a new perspective.
Benavides, 23, began her practicum by conducting research on a group of women in an impoverished area in San José, investigating their levels of psychological stress, often manifested in depression or anxiety. As part of her research, she looked at the root causes of this stress and discovered that in almost all cases, the key cause was financial challenges. While many of them had familial and societal issues, these were often deeply rooted in their financial insecurity.
This realization spurred Eunice to found the “Cooperativa de Mujeres” (Women’s Cooperative) to teach women living in dire financial circumstances about entrepreneurship and personal finance. For her first workshop, in the fall of 2015, she planned for 25 women to come; 45 showed up. Now, over 130 women from the community participate in the program. Eunice has helped many of them create business plans, and even brought in experts from one of the largest banks in the country to talk about personal finance and how to gain funding for businesses.
“It is an agreement with these women,” Eunice says, explaining how the cooperative commits to offering them the financial knowledge and business skills they lack, while calling on them to lean on their new community and financial acumen to improve their situations.
So far, the approach is working better than Eunice and her professor, Rosa, could ever have imagined. The group of women is empowered and many have viable business plans that show promise of gaining investment and funding. Many ULatina social work students have started working with the cooperative as part of their practicums. For Rosa, the initiative has given her a model she can use as a reference when explaining to her students why it is useful to address the causes of stress, not just the psychological effects.
“Some of my students say, ‘But this is not social work,’” Rosa says, describing students’ reactions when they hear they will be running personal finance or business workshops. But as Eunice has found, the nontraditional approach often brings about the most holistic solutions.