BUENA VISTA, Virginia — Southern Virginia University students Chris Burton and Nathan Diviney are returned missionaries who have found a new mission: changing the world’s economic future by helping one business at a time. The two young men are studying abroad in Bolivia this semester, participating in a program where they serve as business consultants. “It’s just like being on a mission,” said Burton, “but instead we focus on temporal things and it’s just as rewarding.”

Standing with their students are Nathan Diviney (in front row, furthest left) and Chris Burton (in back row, second to last on right).

The program is run by Ascend Humanitarian Alliance, an organization based in Salt Lake City. Through the program, volunteers like Burton and Diviney supplement their education by teaching business principles and practices to entrepreneurs seeking to improve their company’s performance.

Don Clarke, a volunteer business professor and advisor at SVU, helped launch Ascend’s micro-enterprise program in Bolivia after serving as a mission president there. “I have a great love for the Bolivian people,” said Clarke. “We want to change Bolivia, one person at a time, and the way we change people is by getting them to do things differently. By reaching one person at a time,”
he said, “we will affect future generations and the entire economy of Bolivia.”

Don Clarke volunteers to teach business to SVU’s students.

Clarke is a successful businessman who has headed many companies, including a Fortune 500 company and Lord & Taylor. “The economy of a small country like Bolivia is made up of small businesses,” said Clarke. “The problem is that people don’t practice good business principles, and therefore their businesses barely sustain them. We’re teaching them how to put into
practice principles that will help their companies improve.”

Changing habits is a key focus of Clarke’s philosophy. He tells SVU students, as well as businesses that receive training from Ascend’s program that, “good habits yield good results; bad habits yield bad results.”

“Once we arrived, we saw the actual effects of the program on individuals,” said Diviney, “and we understood how our work could eventually affect a whole country.”

Burton and Diviney teach night classes twice a week to representatives from twenty different businesses, including a nursing school, dentists, contractors, and landscapers. “We teach principles that can be applied to every single business, and to people’s lives: being financially wise, not living outside your means, and keeping records,” Diviney said.

Training also covers topics such as customer service and employee development. During the day, Burton and Diviney work with participants in their businesses.  Diviney believes this is why Ascend’s program is more successful than any program of its kind. “We don’t just teach people what to do; we actually help them do it,” he said.

This hands-on, intimate involvement allows program instructors to develop customized approaches for each of the participating companies.  According to Clarke, some businesses have doubled or even tripled their income in a matter of months by simply applying the practices they’ve learned through the program.

On Sundays, Burton and Diviney serve in church callings in the local Bolivian ward. Just a few days after arriving in the country, Burton was sustained as the Young Men President and Diviney was appointed to the Elders Quorum presidency.

“At first I thought it would be nice to have some free time; then we got hit with these callings,” said Diviney. “When I look at why we came here however, I think it’s great. We’re now able to help the Church grow and be more organized in this area with many new converts.” He continued, “It’s absolutely good to be busy doing wonderful things.”

Regarding the young men whom he mentors in the ward, Burton said, “I’m excited to help them strengthen their testimonies. Two of them are within six months of going on their missions.” He added, “We came down here to serve in every way possible. It’s just so exciting and so rewarding to see that the Church is the same in all parts of the world.”

Burton served in the Kenya Nairobi Mission and has already completed his course work at SVU. He will graduate after his participation in Ascend’s program. “This is the perfect capstone to my college education,” he said.  “It’s a unique opportunity to put everything that I’ve learned into
practice to help people. I couldn’t think of a better way to finish my degree than being actively and intricately involved in helping these people improve their situations.”

Diviney served in the Dominican Republic Santo Domingo East Mission. Speaking of Ascend’s program he said, “This has been the best educational experience I’ve had by far. I’m excited to get up every morning because I’m making a difference in people’s lives.”

It is Southern Virginia’s mission to “prepare leader-servants” and partnering with Ascend Humanitarian Alliance facilitates that goal.

Students at Southern Virginia University have benefited from personalized training, adept leadership, and dedicated service. By participating in Ascend’s business consultant program, they in turn apply their knowledge by giving  others those same gifts of direction and encouragement. Service is an integral part of SVU’s philosophy and curriculum, evidenced by the school’s motto, “Learn that life is service.”