It began with a simple pencil drive
in 2008 to help students struggling in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
In just two weeks, Juan Carlos
Villatora, a policital science major from El Salvador, and two other University
of North Florida student volunteers collected about 1,500 pounds of school
supplies to be divided between school-aged students in the two countries. When they
arrived in the Dominican Republic during spring break to deliver the supplies,
the UNF students saw for themselves how isolated the children were and how
difficult the learning conditions. There was no electricity. Many have never
seen a computer, much less used one. And those who had used one had never
connected to the Internet. They had no way to do up-to-the-minute research or
connect to the rest of the world.
And that is when the UNF students
decided they had to do something to help.
They promised the children at
Centro Educativo, a small school in the village of Pananoa, and themselves that
they would be back with the equipment and supplies necessary to make a real
“If you provide the Internet and
connectivity, you have plugged them into the world of knowledge,” Villatora
said. “They are up to par with modern teaching and everything else that comes
with it. You have taught them how to learn in a whole new way.”
When they arrived back at UNF, they
talked to others in the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) club and an idea
began to take shape. They wanted to bring technology to the students, but had
to do so in a way that would protect the sensitive machinery from the pervasive
heat and humidity of the Dominican Republic. From that need, the Connect.
Educate. Lead (CEL) project was born.
“The U.S. has become more of an
importer than an exporter and has a surplus of shipping containers,” Villatora
said. “They are no longer seaworthy and we wanted to recycle them into computer
labs or living quarters which can then be shipped anywhere in the U.S. or
around the world.”
After learning that shipping
containers can be retrofitted to become independent units for living or
learning, the group quickly jumped on the idea as a solution to their dilemma.
The repurposed containers were a way to bring sustainable education and
economic growth to the area. And it fit right in with the mission of SIFE.
The group has worked out an
agreement with Crowley Maritime Corporation to move the container from campus
to the Dominican Republic. The SIFE students are still working on to raise the
last $6,200 in private donations need to complete the solar-powered computer
“We still need a satellite dish and
the thin client servers,” Villatora said. “Without the satellite dish, this
village will not be able to receive an Internet, which, in turn, will end the
distance learning aspect.”
In its 17th year at UNF,
SIFE brings together a diverse network of students, faculty members and
industry leaders on a shared mission of creating a better, more sustainable
world through the positive power of business. UNF SIFE participants demonstrate
that anyone with knowledge and passion for business can be a powerful force for
Dr. Fred Pragasam, a senior
instructor in Marketing and Logistics and a former 10-year adviser to the UNF
SIFE group, said, “SIFE creates that leadership quality and expose the students
to some of the societal needs. Apart from the academic work, the students are
involved in what society needs and community-related needs.”
There are more than 1,500 active SIFE
teams in 39 countries around the globe. More than 48,000 students participate
in 8,700 team community projects. Students in SIFE volunteer nearly five
million hours annually and bring in about $19 million in global network
revenue. While the numbers might be staggering, SIFE’s mission is simple: To
bring together the top leaders of today and tomorrow to create a better, more
sustainable world through the positive power of business.
Each year, the UNF group strives to
do just that. They work to develop projects that involve members of the
University community, local businesses and industry and the Jacksonville
community. The projects are then entered in regional competition against other
SIFE groups and if they are successful at that level go on to the SIFE USA
National Exposition and then, if they are chosen as the national champion,
represent SIFE at the World Cup competition.
UNF SIFE has won 14 consecutive
regional championships and placed in the top 20 of 800 teams nationally in five
of the last six years.
“SIFE is a wonderful way to accomplish something while gaining valuable
experience,” said Mirza Catic, the group’s
president who graduated in December 2010 with a degree in financial services
and who currently works as an options analyst at Deutsche Bank. “Companies really want students who have
participated in SIFE because they know they know how to produce measurable
SIFE Hall-of-Famer Pragasam agrees.
“I think we have really brought the name of UNF to a national level now. SIFE
is supported by several multi-national companies and because of our success the
past few years, it has brought a tremendous amount of attention to UNF
nationally and internationally.”
And some of the former
SIFE students have brought themselves a great deal of success internationally.
Sylvester John is a 2001 UNF graduate who is now the President of the SIFE
International Affiliate. He parlayed a very successful career in SIFE as a
student to an even more successful career as the head of the international
portion of SIFE, a job that was created for the Sierra Leona native. “I had
been working as a consultant and SIFE head-hunted me,” he said from a
Paris-bound train. “I went to the head office and was told to take my model all
across Africa and 10 years later, we are in 39 countries.”
When he was a UNF student, John
developed a highly successful SIFE program in Ghana, which helped to develop
businesses with local residents. John put together the plan for the operation,
which included the writing and review of business plans and the execution of
“It was a four-month
transformational learning experience,” John said. “And it ultimately led to the
position I have now.”
More than 90 percent of
all SIFE students are hired upon graduation and most of them are hired at the
mid-manager level, said David Hayes, one of the co-Sam Walton fellows for SIFE
and the faculty adviser for the group. He has been a former judge at the SIFE
National Competition. “These students are not hired for entry-level positions.
They have already done that while in school and while participating on these
many projects. When they graduate, they are ready for much more substantial
John could not agree more. “If
there is one thing I learned at UNF through SIFE,” he said, “it is that nothing
comes without hard work or some amount of pain. Those of us in SIFE tend to
fully appreciate that academics are only one piece. We still need the soft
skills to land a good job in a fulfilling career. And they only way we can get
those soft skills is through practice. Those of us who had the good fortune to
join SIFE soon learned that by the time we graduated, we had a little more of
an edge. We were much more ready than many of our colleagues. We could speak to
real, practical issues.”
This year, SIFE was brought under
the umbrella of the Institute for Values, Community and Leadership (IVCL). The
IVCL addresses the very real need of empowering future leaders to take their
place in the world with the knowledge, skill set and acumen needed to hit the
ground running after graduation. Both the IVCL and SIFE have like goals — to
provide students with the experience necessary to be confident leaders in the
community, the region, the nation or internationally.
Dr. Annabel Brooks is the other
co-Sam Walton Fellow and director of the IVCL. Brooks said that bringing SIFE
into IVCL was a great decision for the University and its students.
“Universities as a whole do a great
job at putting out teachers, biologists and rocket scientists,” she said. “But
in general, they do not do such a good job at putting out leaders. Combining
SIFE with IVCL ensures UNF will graduate highly qualified leaders who are also
extremely competent teachers, biologists and rocket scientists. We are devoted
to community engagement and leadership.”
The CEL project, just one of many
SIFE is currently working on, gives UNF students the opportunity to extend
their educational experiences beyond traditional coursework. By using
decommissioned shipping containers that are no longer seaworthy, students from Dr.
Maged Malek’s industrial construction class in the College of Computing,
Engineering and Construction did the actual retrofitting and
built a classroom that is solar
powered and self-sustaining. They were able to strip it down to its barest
bones and build it back up to a unit that is now non-corrosive, able to
withstand both hurricanes and earthquakes, and completely off the grid.
The solar system design and
installation was done by John Gonzalez, an electrical engineering student under
the supervision of CCEC Associate Dean Dr. Gerry Merckel.
The container is outfitted with furniture
and computers from UNF that are no longer in use. The technology is a few years
behind and no longer useful at the University, but perfect for students who are
just learning or have somewhat less technical needs. They will be able to learn
and explore with “recycled” machines and software.
Villatora, who works on this
project every day of each week, said this particular project shows the
University has the capability to help create jobs for graduating students and
the local community while impacting communities across the rest of the world.
container project is more than just a way to bring the outside world to the
students who need it most — it is also a way for UNF students to come together
across disciplines to create a legacy. It gives back and pays forward all at
the same time by providing a much-needed educational opportunity for the
students in the Dominican Republic, but also will provide real-life experience
for the UNF students who have participated in the project. And that is what
SIFE is all about — combining education with real-world needs and providing
long-lasting solutions while forever changing those who participate.
“I would not be where I am today
without SIFE,” John said.