Decatur native Jason Harrison may be doing his part to “fix” social issues thousands of miles and more than a dozen countries removed from his hometown.
But the 2004 DHS graduate contends that the start of a philanthropic pursuit that has taken him to Paraguay began while at home.
”I got started on this journey with the opportunities at DHS – Earthsavers with Mrs. (Joy) Woodruff, SADD with Mrs. (Donna) Endres,” Harrison said. “Being involved in these organizations helped prepare me to continue a road toward social impact. Teachers in Decatur helped me realize something I cared about, something I could do, something I wanted to pursue.”
He said that exposure was intensified with his participation in the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation, as nominated by then-high school counselor Glenda Goodwin, the summer of his sophomore year.
“It changed my life,” he said. “HOBY literally changed my life – the way I think of volunteering, the way to react to problems. I think a lot of people say, ‘I wish someone would fix the problems that we have in government, that there are homeless people. At HOBY, you realize you’re somebody – everybody is somebody – and you can do something about the problems you see around you. HOBY got me interested in fixing social problems.”
Harrison remained involved in the North Texas chapter of HOBY until 2007 and the Utah chapter at Brigham Young University – from which he anticipates to graduate in the spring – thereafter.
Also while at BYU, he became connected with Vittana, a non-governmental organization that collects private donations to lend to students in a developing world.
Harrison applied for an internship with the organization last February, was selected and began working as a Vittana fellow in Paraguay in May and was to continue through the first week of August.
“It was a magical intersection of everything, and now I’m here,” he said. “It has been a great opportunity. Total, I’ll be here three months. As a fellow, I am working with Vittana’s in-country partner, Fundaci n Paraguaya. They know the area’s people, its culture, how to reach out to them, who to loan to, etc. In essence, Fundaci n Paraguaya lends out the money Vittana collects.”
As a fellow, Harrison primarily wears three hats – impact analysis, marketing and demonstration.
“The bulk of what I do is an impact analysis,” he said. “I look at how student loans are affecting students in terms of income, how they provide for their families, how it changes their attitude about their opportunities in life and about what’s possible. And I do that through statistics like graduation rates, payback rates, changes in income – boring but important facts and figures. There are a couple of different metrics we use to gauge the program’s success.
“I am also helping with marketing,” he continued. “One of Vittana’s marketing professionals came to make a documentary of the different students and their success stories. I served as the translator and tour guide, helping with the logistics. The end result was an impressive documentary telling the stories of these students to spread Vittana’s message and, hopefully, get more donors. It was a lot of fun.”
As his third responsibility, Harrison is visiting with representatives of other financial institutions in Paraguay to convince them loaning to students, as Fundaci n Paraguaya does, is a worthwhile service to offer.
“In America there are so many ways to finance an education,” he said. “Here, the only way you can go to school is if your parents have money or you can pay for it on your own. But you can’t get a good enough job to pay for your education unless you have an education, so it’s kind of a catch-22.
“None of the banks here offer student products like Wells Fargo, Bank of America and even local institutions like Legend Bank do,” he said. “The people seeking these loans are poor, and banks avoid poor clients. They have no collateral, and they think students won’t pay them back.”
But through his work in impact analysis, Harrison is finding evidence to the contrary.
“They do pay them back,” he said. “In fact, the payback rate is 99.8 percent. Wells Fargo would kill to have that kind of payback rate. Vittana works to prove that students are worth investing in, that they are good clients. Not only do they pay back on time, they increase their income on average by 2.8 times. Result rates are obviously impressive.”
With these results, Harrison and other fellows hope these numbers convince banks to serve students.
“Right now, we are limited on the number of students we can help,” Harrison said. “But if we had more banks willing to consider student customers, we would have much more impact. I hope that the facts and figures of the impact analysis will convince them that the payback is more consistent among students than regular clients, and the impact they could have is incredible.
“It can help triple a person’s income, take them out of poverty and give them an education,” he said. “It is much more impactful than someone taking out a car loan.”
To qualify for a loan, students must meet a minimum monthly income – or prove their parents have sufficient income – to ensure the students will be capable of making payments on the loan.
Just as simple, others can donate to the cause.
“The cool thing about Vittana is that you don’t have to be a millionaire to be philanthropic,” Harrison said. “You can start with $25, and 100 percent of it goes to a student. If they pay it back, you get it back, so it’s not even donating. It’s loaning money that will most likely be given back to you. And when it is, you can choose to loan it to another student or go buy yourself a pair of shoes. It’s very easy and definitely within the means of most people. Even poor college kids can do this.”
As a college kid himself, Harrison was interning in Washington, D.C., last summer when he heard about the Show Me campaign, started by John Legend.
“Their mission is to highlight and promote non-profits focused on education or international development,” Harrison said. “In order to apply, you have to be interning or working for free for a non-profit. If you get selected, you get $3,000, and, in exchange, you get to tell the story of your organization through blog posts, videos and photos, using as much social media as possible – Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr. I am very lucky to have come across the opportunities.”
And he hopes to continue working so as to help provide similar opportunities for others.
“My dream is to continue working in this field,” Harrison said. “I was meant to work using business principles to fix social problems in a developing world. But I am proud to say that the first steps were taken back at home, back at DHS.”