Skip to main content
Skip to navigation
University of Missouri

Volcano Surfing, Business-style

Business students gain new perspective during a service trip to Nicaragua.

group portrait

Eighteen sophomores from the Cornell Leadership Program, a program for high-achieving students in the Trulaske College of Business, helped renovate a family-owned restaurant in the seaside town of León, Nicaragua. From left to right: Zachary Smith, Gregory Stringfellow, Matthew Rosebrough and Calvin Blaylock. Courtesy Stacy Rohr.

The 18 sophomores were walking a narrow, wind-swept path up the side of an active Nicaraguan volcano. Each carried a surfboard of sorts that they would eventually use to slide down the loose-rock-strewn face of the mountain. On the way up, though, the boards acted as wind catchers, threatening with every gust to pull the students off the path and head-first down the mountain.

Brock Gerstner clutched his board, acutely aware that he was experiencing the scariest moment of his life.

“Brock, are you nervous?” asked one of his Trulaske College of Business mentors. He stared at her with a flat expression. In a low, steady voice that fought through the wind, he simply said, “Yes.”

The students, members of the Cornell Leadership Program, were in Nicaragua as part of a weeklong service trip over winter break. The sophomore-year international journey is a new element of the program since Harry Cornell, BS BA ’50, gave a $6 million endowment gift in 2015.

Andrea Woolverton, BS ’02, PhD ‘07, owner of the Nicaragua-based Twin Engine Coffee, organized the students’ itinerary and acted as their local guide.

Through field trips to coffee fields, processing plants and roasting facilities, they learned about the coffee business — “I thought I knew a lot about coffee before,” says Elizabeth Triplett of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, a Starbucks barista. The students also helped renovate a family restaurant.

“I was thinking it would be like a typical American restaurant, just a little run down,” says Emma Worgul, of Leewood, Kansas. Not so.

Instead, they found an open-air, beachside restaurant with a roof supported by corner posts. A wood fire served as grill and oven. There was no running water. In 90-degree heat, the students painted the fence and posts, leveled the sand floor and laid 100-pound stone pavers.

The improvements will help the mother and daughters who own the business to compete against surrounding restaurants.

“She cried; she was so thankful for the work we did,” says Maggie Dorr, from Chesterfield, Missouri.

The students went on the trip in search of an experience and a chance to help. They came back looking at their lives through different lenses.

“We all changed over the week,” says Dorr.

“Back here,” says Gerstner, “I realize how much opportunity I have to make an impact on the world.”

But before any of that came the volcano-surfing expedition. The final twist to the excursion was that, when they were huddled near the top of the volcano, sitting on their boards, hands on the ground, in the moment before they lunged forward and surrendered control to gravity, they couldn’t even see where they were going. The board was too long and the drop was too steep. They had to just push off and find out.

One by one, that’s exactly what they did.