CHAMPAIGN — For 15 University of Illinois law students, spring break will be Malawi style.
Early Thursday morning, they'll be heading to the impoverished southeastern African nation to hand out school supplies and other necessities.
They will also study how "micro-finance," or how a subsistence economy without banks or credit, works in communities of Africa.
They have already collected hundreds of pencils, notebooks, textbooks and other school supplies to donate to local primary schools.
Nathaniel Koppel, a second-year law student who is one of the leaders of the group, said the students are paying their own way.
"Most of us have student loans to cover some of the expenses," he said.
He said the group has gathered about 1,500 pencils, around 300 notebooks, pens, pencil sharpeners, erasers, atlases, English-as-a-second-language books, "I Can Read" readers, soccer balls and puzzles to bring to village pupils.
"Everybody is taking an extra suitcase that's just going to be filled with school supplies. We only need one suitcase for 10 days but are allowed to bring two for international travel," he said.
They'll also bring used shoes and eyeglasses, and are collecting wedding dresses for a local entrepreneur who rents them to local brides.
The group leaves from the College of Law on Thursday and flies out of O'Hare International Airport. They then fly from Washington Dulles International Airport to South Africa. The next day, the group makes the final leg to Malawi, Koppel said.
"Everyone is incredibly driven. For 500 students, we can make a serious difference," he said.
Koppel said the Malawian students use English in the classroom even though it isn't their first language.
Law Professor Christine Hurt, who is making her third trip to Malawi, said she is "excited about how excited the students are."
She said the 15 are enrolled in a course on the law of micro-finance.
"We will talk to institutions and experience how people live in a subsistence economy. We'll visit markets and see what's like from the inside," Hurt said.
They will study how community life plays a role in the economy, and visit for-profit and non-profit organizations.
Malawi is among the poorest of nations with a gross domestic product per capita of $343 a year in 2010, according to the group. More than 10 percent of the population has HIV/AIDS, and the life expectancy is 53 years, the group said.
The students are traveling with a geologist from the Illinois State Geological Survey, Tim Larson, who will examine the importance and mechanics of secure water sources.
Hurt said the weather could be interesting.
In her past two trips, Hurt visited Malawi in September.
"September is the dry season, it works well with the weather," she said. "To be part of this course, we pretty much had to go in spring at the end of the rainy season. It rains about half an hour a day."
Koppel said the area they'll visit includes the city of Zomba, a sister city of Urbana.
The students will also be going to Blantyre, the commercial capital of Malawi; and Lisanjala, a small village.