Illinois MBA group returning to SD reservation

Associated Press Published: August 12, 2012
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A dozen graduate students from Illinois are headed to South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation this week to fix roofs, repair trailer skirts and build porches in a community that's constantly battling poverty and high unemployment.

The 900-mile trip west is part of an ongoing effort by MBA students from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who created the not-for-profit Kola Foundation two years ago as part of a long-term commitment to build relationships with the Oglala Lakota people.

"It's about getting students exposed to this community giving them the opportunity to go out there and do some good and hopefully get motivated to come back and use their skills to help out and take over next year," said Shelly Wohaldo, a second-year MBA student who serves as Kola's chief executive officer.

The group's goal is to stimulate the local economy of Pine Ridge while promoting education, improving health care and fostering hope, said Wohaldo, 26. Ten of the 12 Kola volunteers making the trip this week are incoming students who will begin pursing their masters' degrees this fall.

The student group arranges its trips with Re-Member, a Pine Ridge-based non-profit organization that works with the Oglala Sioux Tribe to organize volunteers from churches, schools and corporations for service projects.

Re-Member Director Ted Skantze said the MBA students are great kids with caring hearts, and he likes that as somebody graduates from the school, leadership positions are handed down to the next person.

"They have sustainability," Skantze said. "It's not like they're here today and gone tomorrow. They have genuine interest."

The business school's association with Pine Ridge began in 2010 when then-dean Stig Lanesskog took four students on a 2010 trip out to the reservation.

Lanesskog, now an associate provost, wanted the MBA program to stress corporate and social responsibility and he was looking for ways to give students hands-on experience that could help guide future decision making.

"When you're in a situation to be able to make a decision about locating your business, are you only thinking about the financial aspects?" Lanesskog wondered. "Can you be thinking about the other impact beyond financials?"

So students Adam Ratner and Nick Reynolds created the Kola Foundation, with plans to turn over leadership to new students each year. Participation by MBA students is voluntary with no course or internship credits offered.