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SEP Students Find Inspiration at Harvard Conference

Three students represented University of St. Thomas’ Social Entrepreneurship Program at the 15th annual Harvard Social Enterprise Conference in Boston, Mass., in March. This was the second time students have represented UST at the conference.

Maria Lino, Esther James and Rebecca Skaff attended workshops and lectures at the Harvard SEC that were relevant to what SEP was doing in Houston.

UST’s SEP is a student run, service-learning co-curricular program that gives students the opportunity to put into practice the theories and techniques they learn in the classroom. SEP transfers knowledge and whenever possible, financial assistance to selected field partners working at underprivileged communities around the world.

Dr. Rogelio Garcia Contreras, associate professor at the Center for International Studies, said students learn that the work they do at UST is just as important and meaningful as the work other students conduct at different institutions with more resources, highlighting the quality of education students receive at UST.

“Students often hesitate about their role in making a difference until they attend the conference,” Dr. Garcia Contreras said. “It legitimizes their involvement and the work we do in the program.”

All students involved in SEP are invited to attend, but Dr. Garcia Contreras said the ideal student to represent UST is someone who is enthusiastic about the program, outspoken and willing to talk to others about the program and help build a network of contacts and potential partners.

Change in Perspective

Rebecca Skaff, a junior double major in communications and international studies, was one of the students who was encouraged by Dr. Garcia Contreras to attend the conference. She said her desire to help others and make a difference was the reason she became involved in SEP.

“I love what SEP wants to do,” Skaff said. “The concept behind microcredit finance to create sustainable economic development is a wonderful way to tackle one of the world's most persistent problems. SEP helps the world one community at a time, and I want to be part of something bigger than me that helps to create a better the world.”

A native from Lebanon, Skaff said that she was previously hesitant to return to the Middle East because of the uprising that has been affecting the job market since the 80s, but now she wants to return to help.

“After hearing each person speak about their various organizations, missions and development, I felt like I wanted nothing but to go back home and make a difference,” Skaff said. “The panelists helped me see my region of the world in a whole new light, and I’m very grateful for that.”

Making a Difference

Students involved in SEP implemented an idea brought back from the 2012 Harvard SEC – an electronic campaign was used to raise funds for the program’s most recent project on the Yucatan peninsula in 2013. This was the first time SEP used a non-traditional fundraising method to meet the goal of raising $5,000. More than $9,000 was raised.

With the help of local nonprofit organization Ayuda para Ayudar and the funds raised by the campaign, SEP will build a honey processing plant for honey producers on the peninsula in an attempt to break the cycle of poverty in more than 50 Mayan communities.

More information about the program and its projects can be found at

By Elaine Rivera

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