The Tegulet region of northern Ethiopia is rich with history, a
rural area known for its majestic landmarks and cultural
traditions. But like much of Ethiopia, Tegulet faces a mounting
economic problem: its local businesses struggle to keep up with
Moges Beyene ’14TCB, a St. John’s University student and member of
the Ozanam Scholars Program, plans to change that.
native of Ethiopia, Beyene hopes to use the knowledge and skills
he’s learning at St. John’s – and the commitment to service he’s
gained through Ozanam – to help his homeland.
I traveled to Tegulet during Christmas break and observed the
problems they’re facing,” he explained. “Their businesses produce
honey, but they fail to make a quality product. They don’t use
proper filters and instead rely on traditional methods of
production. That’s where I hope to step in.
As an Economics major, Beyene is learning how to raise funds to
enhance the region's infrastructure and to assist in marketing and
advertising. And his desire to improve his native community has
been further enhanced through the Ozanam Scholars Program, an
opportunity that has instilled in him a greater understanding of
how to root out social injustice through a combination of research
Before I joined the Ozanam Program, I didn't have a full grasp
on the meaning of service,” Beyene noted. “It’s been a
transformation for me. You don’t just serve – you study why you
serve and figure out how to make a lasting change in the world.
It’s been nothing short of an inspirational experience.”
Beyene is just one of the many remarkable students who are a
part of the Ozanam Scholars Program – a unique and dynamic St.
John’s initiative that combines service, academics and global
learning. Created in 2007, the program awards up to $10,000
scholarships to an average of 25 students each year, requiring
these young men and women to address and work towards solving
today’s most pressing social problems. From homelessness to hunger,
education to healthcare, Ozanam students tackle a variety of global
injustices, serving communities at home and abroad.
“From the start, the concept was to create a program where we
would train students to be researchers in Social Science, in
addition to their primary field of study,” said University Provost
Julia Upton, RSM, Ph.D. ’73G, ’75G. Upton, along with former
Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer James P.
Pellow Ed.D., implemented the program five years ago and has been
excited to watch it grow.
These students are trained so that they don’t just read a story in
the newspaper,” she added. “They read a story in the newspaper and
immediately ask questions, start probing and investigating. These
students are future business leaders, pharmacists, teachers,
nonprofit leaders - you name it - and they all come together here
at St. John's to make an impact on the world.
The program is appropriately named in honor of Blessed Frederic
Ozanam, a nineteenth century Parisian law student who put his
academics and faith into action, founding the organization that
would become the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Now, St. John's
students are following in Ozanam's footsteps, spending their
college years not only serving the poor and disadvantaged, but
researching how to eradicate the root causes of poverty. .
During their freshman and sophomore years, Ozanam scholars
complete thousands of service hours at 15 different community
partner sites, working in homeless shelters, schools and food
pantries. They also travel to various parts of the United States
and Europe, attending conferences, engaging in service and learning
the history of Frederic Ozanam and the Vincentian mission.
Ultimately, each student uses these experiences in the classroom
and in the field to develop a unique service project, which they
explore more fully during a junior-year independent study and,
potentially, as a senior capstone project.
Beyene, for example, hopes to focus his independent study on the
research he’s been conducting in Ethiopia, exploring ways to revamp
his homeland’s economy by revitalizing the local honey industry.
Other scholars, like English major Ancy Skaria ’13C, are also
tackling global issues.
During a summer trip to India, Skaria observed that the government
did little to support orphaned children, treating them as if they
were castaways. She investigated further and was surprised by what
The culture is so remarkably different from here,” she said. If
you're homeless, the prevailing notion is that you were born that
way, and there's simply nothing that can help you. There’s no
social welfare system in India, so the orphanage I saw did not
receive government support. It’s truly astonishing.”
Digging even deeper, Skaria’s independent study examined how
religion – Christianity, Islam and Hinduism – shapes particular
regions’ views of orphaned children. She’s been speaking with
government officials throughout India in anticipation of her
potential capstone project.
It's a topic I feel very strongly about, and I’m thankful to the
Ozanam Program for giving me this opportunity to explore it,” she
said. “Eventually, I’d like to pursue a career in higher education
administration, and one of my goals is to establish programs like
Ozanam at other schools and universities. It puts our academics
into practice and teaches us how we can make a lasting impact,
which is precisely what college students need to be doing.”
But Ozanam Scholars don't just look abroad to conduct their
independent studies. In fact, many stay right here in New
Biology major Victoria Gander '12C, for example, is
working on a capstone project centered around St. John's Bread and
Life – a Brooklyn-based soup kitchen and food pantry that serves
over 1,000 meals a day to needy families in the New York City area.
Her primary concern is improving the residents’ awareness of proper
“Through Bread and Life, I’ve become increasingly interested in the
eating habits of certain populations here in Brooklyn,” Gander
explained. “My research has found that particular areas in Brooklyn
have some of the highest rates of diabetes, obesity and heart
disease – illnesses that are often rooted in nutrition. So it’s
become abundantly clear that proper eating is a problem in these
neighborhoods, and that’s what I’m hoping to improve.”
Gander views her capstone project as a stepping stone to her dream
career: working in public health and nutrition in New York City.
Thanks to Ozanam, she’s already begun to research how to make her
ambitious ideas come to fruition.
“I’m looking into a variety of ways to increase the local
population’s awareness of proper nutrition,” she said.
“Specifically, we need to encourage the creation of more grocery
stores in order to provide a diverse range of products that are
competitively priced. We also need to guarantee a wider selection
of food options in local pantries, in addition to educating the
poorer populations on how to make healthy choices with their food
stamps. This is an issue I want to address throughout my career, so
my work with Ozanam is the perfect start.”
Students like Beyene, Skaria and Gander illustrate one of the
Ozanam Program’s most impressive features: its students represent
an incredibly diverse range of interests and they impact
communities near and far in a very unique way.
Rev. James J. Maher, C.M. ’84C, Executive Vice President for
Mission and Student Services, views this as the program’s defining
traveling abroad and experiencing the world as they serve, the
scholars find out how the Vincentian mission is enhanced and shaped
by culture,” Fr. Maher noted. “Whether it’s in Rome, Paris or here
in New York, they see the beauty of the mission through its
diversity. That, in turn, helps us learn how we can respond to the
unique needs of each community we interact with, which is
Fr. Maher points to Project Identity as a perfect example of this.
Created by Ozanam scholars John Wilson ’11CPS and Eugenia Soldatos
’11CPS, Project Identity improves the lives of some of New York’s
neediest residents by assisting them in obtaining official
identification that they need in order to vote, apply for jobs and
“That’s precisely what I mean when I say that these scholars shape
their response to the community they’re serving,” Fr. Maher said.
“A group of Ozanam students were working at Bread and Life, helping
clients register to vote. They opened up a dialogue with the
clients and discovered that many of these residents actually had no
legal documentation. That led to the creation of Project Identity,
and now it’s evolved into a program that New York City has
expressed an interest in replicating.”
But Project Identity is just the tip of the iceberg. The very first
Ozanam class graduated in May 2011, and their wealth of
accomplishments and aspirations are a testament to the value of the
Speech Pathology major Lauren Miller ’11C traveled to Guatemala for
her capstone project to assist a medical orphanage treat children
with dysphagia, a swallowing disorder. In addition to working
directly with the children, Miller also helped to teach the workers
and volunteers at the orphanage how to properly feed children with
this rare disease. The project exemplifies the Ozanam mission to
create lasting change, establishing a framework to ensure long-term
“That was truly a life-changing experience,” Miller recalled. “The
staff there was very receptive to the ideas we were developing, so
now they’ll be properly equipped to help kids with dysphagia for a
long time, without any outside assistance.”
The project also helped Miller realize that Speech Pathology – and
using her talents to help those in need – was what she wanted to
pursue as a full-time career. She is currently en route to
obtaining a Master’s degree at Columbia University Teachers College
and is excited for what lies ahead.
“I can’t tell you how thankful I am to the Ozanam Program for
encouraging me to go beyond my comfort zone, to try things that I
might have never considered,” she said. “I’ve discovered that
working with children, helping them overcome disabilities like
dysphagia, is my calling, and my project in Guatemala helped to
There are many other outstanding Ozanam alumni stories. Patricia
Batchelor ’11C conducted a nationwide study on human trafficking
and is currently working at St. John’s as she plans to pursue an
advanced degree in Psychology; Wilson, who helped create Project
Identity, is attending law school, where he is exploring additional
ways to help the disenfranchised; and Christina Walters ’11C
combined her interests in Psychology and Fine Arts to create
awareness campaigns against bullying in local elementary
The numbers speak for themselves: of the inaugural graduates (31
students in all), 18 have been accepted into graduate or
professional programs, including six who are pursuing further
degrees at St. John’s, three are completing a year of service and
10 are employed in various industries. As of March 2012, Ozanam
students have completed 65 independent studies and 19 capstone
Interest in the program from prospective students has also
increased. Nearly 600 applications have already been received for
next year, with only 25 spots to fill.
Charissa Townsend, Director of the Ozanam Scholars Program, and
Deanne A. Southwell, Executive Director for the Vincentian
Institute for Social Action, have played a key role in expanding
the program over the last few years. They attribute Ozanam’s
increasing popularity to its eclectic group of student
Part of its success is because we don’t limit any majors from
participating,” Townsend said. “We’re not just looking for the type
of student who will one day become an executive director of a
nonprofit. Sure, that’d be great, but we also want pharmacists,
biologists, lawyers, business leaders. We welcome a diverse range
of candidates who, because of their history of service, are ready
to make that next step through Ozanam.”
Southwell served as the Ozanam Director prior to Townsend, and she
has enjoyed watching the program blossom. She’s particularly
excited to follow each scholar’s endeavors as they graduate and
hopes to eventually establish an Ozanam alumni network.
The students in the Ozanam Program develop a very special bond with
one another and the University,” she said. “They become like
brothers and sisters, forging friendships that last a lifetime. We
hope to keep them close in the years to come, and I can’t wait to
see what the future holds for these bright young men and
Without a doubt, the Ozanam Scholars Program has emerged as a
premier scholarship opportunity at St. John’s, offering a
life-changing experience for student participants. And it’s making
a difference near and far.
From orphanages in India to food pantries in Brooklyn, hospitals in
Guatemala to local businesses in rural Ethiopia, these students are
quite literally changing the world, one community at a time.