Tobin Students Continue Support of School Construction in Developing World

Six Tobin students pose for a photo in a classroom while seated

Photo By: Joella L. Paccione

January 30, 2024

Many miles from Central America, students in The Peter J. Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University brought hope to residents of rural Guatemala.  

Students in the Service Marketing class led by Timothy L. Keiningham, Ph.D., Professor, Marketing, and J. Donald Kennedy Endowed Chair in E-Commerce, raised $6,000 in the Fall 2023 semester for buildOn, a Connecticut-based nonprofit that has constructed more than 2,500 schools in the developing world. The money will support the construction of a primary school in Guatemala.

Beset by poverty and social inequality, Guatemala has the highest illiteracy rate in Central America, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization  (UNESCO).

“You think about how much people in the developing world want to go to school. Education is something we here can take for granted,” said Olivia Garafola ’23TCB, from Port Jefferson, NY, who graduated in December with a Bachelor of Science degree in Interdisciplinary Business. “Most kids there do not have a school building to attend. We were all passionate about this project.”

The students’ fund-raising efforts were part of a partnership with the Office of Academic Service-Learning (AS-L) and represented an opportunity to put classroom skills to the test in a cause Dr. Keiningham described as “wholly Vincentian.” Dr. Keiningham was the 2022 recipient of the Faculty Convocation Award for his work with AS-L.

Over several meetings, students identified a buildOn project they considered worthwhile. Guatemala was selected after an appeal by Georgia Szulkin, from Malverne, NY, a junior Marketing major enrolled in a five-year Master of Business Administration program in Finance. Georgia’s boyfriend’s family is from Guatemala. “So many people there don’t have a desk or even a pen and paper,” Georgia said.

The St. John’s students managed the fund-raising project by employing several strategies, including social media campaigns; appeals to family, friends, and employers; bake sales; and even door-to-door solicitation. Their efforts impressed their partners at buildOn.

“The students really became advocates for the project,” said Daniela Lanuza, buildOn’s Community Engagement Manager and liaison to the St. John’s community. “It was so impressive how they grew in their learning and how much they cared about something that impacts the world.”  

Academic Service-Learning enables St. John’s students to apply classroom-learned skills in a service setting that benefits the public. Students benefit from applying real-world business fundamentals, including fundraising and project management that will be essential once they enter the workforce.

Dr. Keiningham’s Service Marketing class, which is offered in the fall semester, is one of about a dozen AS-L featured projects. Others include working with those impacted by homelessness, food insecurity, or access to health care; efforts to increase civic engagement; and more. Students in Dr. Keininghams Analytics for Consumer Insight class also contributed to the Guatemala project.

Dr. Keiningham’s students have participated in AS-L for several years. Initially, they applied their business skills to help at-risk homeowners through the since-disbanded nonprofit Small Can Be Big. They have since raised funds for buildOn-supported school construction in Mali (2021) and Nicaragua (2022).

Ms. Lanuza said it costs about $43,000 to build a school from scratch in Guatemala. Construction takes about three months; in addition to offering access to education, buildOn projects provide valuable work opportunities for the native population. The organization has built 85 schools in Guatemala, almost all in rural environments, enrolling more than 11,000 students. 

According to Dr. Keiningham, a former senior executive at Ipsos, one of the world’s largest market research firms, building a fund-raising campaign from the ground floor is a business skill.

“You must be able to ask for money persuasively as a professional marketer. You are asked to do it all the time,” Dr. Keiningham said. ”You find that you cannot make people do things—even good things like this—by forcing them to do it. You have to persuade them to do it.”

For students who came of age in the GoFundMe era of small, online donations, it was initially unsettling to directly solicit contributions from patrons unfamiliar with buildOn. “As I went door to door, I had plenty of rejections,” said Nicholas Vargas of Forest Hills, NY, a senior Marketing major also enrolled in a five-year M.B.A. program. “But as I continued, the rejections motivated me more and made me more confident. We wanted to help these people who are less fortunate than us.”   

Among the appeals of buildOn was its promise that any school whose construction it funds must enroll at least as many women as men. According to UNESCO and similar agencies, fewer than 50 percent of eligible girls in Latin America have completed high school.  

“It was so important to us that an equal number of women and men go to this school,” Georgia said. “Asking for money is hard, but if you don’t ask, the answer is always no.”

“The school will provide an equal opportunity for everyone,” Nicholas added. “That’s what makes buildOn so great.”