Skip to Main Content

UNF SIFE program changes lives around the world



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 difference.


“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 lab.


“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 change.


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 outcomes.”  


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 those chosen.


“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 challenges.”


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.


The 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.