Wege Prize 2018 Winners

Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University’s (KCAD’s) Wege Center for Sustainable Design has announced the winners of Wege Prize 2018, the fifth iteration of the annual design competition challenging teams of undergraduate and graduate students from around the world to collaborate across institutional, disciplinary, and cultural boundaries and redesign the way economies work.

Participating teams—each composed of five students representing different academic institutions and majors of study—were challenged to collaboratively design and propose a product, service, business, non-profit organization, or other solution to a “wicked problem” of their choosing. Specifically, teams pursued solutions that could function within and help create a paradigm shift towards a circular economy, a rapidly-emerging economic model that focuses on system-wide innovation and aims to be restorative and regenerative by design.

The five finalist teams in Wege Prize 2018 presented their solutions to a judging panel of leading practitioners and advocates of design thinking and sustainability at the Wege Prize 2018 Final Presentation and Awards Event, held on May 18 at KCAD in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. Teams’ solutions were evaluated on factors such as depth of research, technological and financial feasibility, alignment with circular economic principles, and potential for successful real-world implementation.
Winners:

1st Place – $15,000
Team name: Circular Tourism Mexico

 Emiliano Iturriaga (left) of Circular Tourism Mexico representing his team at the Wege Prize 2018 Final Presentation and Awards Event

Emiliano Iturriaga (left) of Circular Tourism Mexico representing his team at the Wege Prize 2018 Final Presentation and Awards Event

Emiliano Iturriaga – Engineering in Sustainable Development (Social Innovation), Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education School of Engineering

Diego Espinoza Siliceo – Engineering in Sustainable Development, Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education School of Engineering

Irene Heras de Hoyos – Graphic Communication Design, Metropolitan Autonomous University of Mexico City

Eduardo Maass Rueda – Actuarial Sciences/Financial Management, Autonomous Institute of Technology of Mexico

Sebastián Muñoz Amezcua – Industrial Design, Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education School of Design

Solution: Circular Tourism Mexico proposed Rutopia, an online platform that facilitates the transition to a fair, sustainable, and circular tourism system for indigenous communities in Mexico. The platform connects indigenous-run community tourism initiatives directly to their target audiences and offers them the tools they need to overcome obstacles that prevent them from competing in the ecotourism marketplace. At the same time, it ensures travelers will be able to enjoy genuine experiences while benefitting both indigenous communities and the environment.

 Circular Tourism Mexico solution excerpt

Circular Tourism Mexico solution excerpt

Moving forward, the team plans to use their prize money to finish building out their online platform and begin real-world testing in collaboration with the indigenous communities with which they’ve been working throughout the course of Wege Prize 2018.

“We really appreciated the social and cultural elements being integral to Circular Tourism Mexico’s solution; they weren’t just add-ons,” says judge Nathan Shedroff, an associate professor at California College of the Arts and founder of the school’s ground-breaking MBA in Design Strategy program. “Their co-op model is particularly well-suited to solve the problems they identified, because they’re truly involving locals in co-design and co-building, which honors culture and keeps money local. The judges see this as a solution that can revitalize communities that are struggling, and we really appreciate that.”


2nd Place – $10,000
Team name: Sabon Sake

 Audrey S-Darko of Sabon Sake representing her team at the Wege Prize 2018 Final Presentation and Awards Event

Audrey S-Darko of Sabon Sake representing her team at the Wege Prize 2018 Final Presentation and Awards Event

Opunabo Eli – Management Information Systems, Ashesi University

Audrey Marigold S-Darko – Business Administration, Ashesi University

Sasha Ofori – Computer Science, Ashesi University

Kelvin Degbotse – Computer Science, Ashesi University

Emmanuel Asamoah – Administration (Marketing Option), University of Ghana

Solution: Sabon Sake proposed the use of biotechnology and web-based technology to transform bagasse, the main waste byproduct of sugarcane farming, into bio-compost fertilizer, increasing accessibility to the larger sugarcane market for rural farmers in Ghana’s Volta Region and helping them achieve greater yields, reduce crop losses and ultimately, overcome poverty. The team has designed a composting system that uses liquid bio-inoculants and vermicomposting to extract maximum value from the bagasse while negating the harmful environmental impacts of burning it, the method by which it is currently disposed.

 Sabon Sake solution excerpt

Sabon Sake solution excerpt

The team plans to spend the next year building on their existing prototype by continuing to work with sugarcane farmers in Ghana to begin implementing their system throughout the Volta Region, and from there, will pursue translating the system to other crops as well.

“The judges were deeply impressed with the enthusiasm, honesty, and passion with which Sabon Sake approaches its project. It was great to see their idea evolve in response to our feedback, resulting in a solution that thoughtfully and effectively addresses a very unsustainable practice in the burning of bagasse,” says judge Michael Werner, environmental program manager and lead for safer chemistry at Google. “They had a strong prototype, a clear implementation plan, and most importantly, clear thoughts on how to scale their process up. That took a local issue and created a solution that can grow beyond that.”


3rd Place – $5,000
Team name: Booming Babies

 Melissa Mazzeo (left) of Booming Babies representing her team at the Wege Prize 2018 Final Presentation  and Awards Event

Melissa Mazzeo (left) of Booming Babies representing her team at the Wege Prize 2018 Final Presentation  and Awards Event

Jatin Batra – Business Administration/Public Policy, Yale University/Princeton University

Cyndi Chen – Business Administration, Yale University

Melissa Mazzeo – Business Administration, Yale University

Daniel Moccia-Field – Business Administration/Environmental Management, Yale University

Christopher Chen – Computer Science, Michigan State University

Solution: Booming Babies proposed an online secondhand children’s clothing subscription service that builds a community of dedicated users while scaling adoption with mobile technology and RFID tagging. The team’s solution also plans to upcycle clothing that has reached the end of its life cycle through aggregation and remanufacturing by partnering with fabric dissolving/melting firms to create new fabric durable enough for extended use and soft enough for babies to wear comfortably.

 Booming Babies solution excerpt

Booming Babies solution excerpt

Following their success in Wege Prize 2018, the team plans to launch their business, Hand Me Up, which offers subscribers seasonal packages of second children’s clothing specific to the child’s age, physical size, and gender. They will launch the business in cooperation with Merry Go Rounds, a children’s consignment boutique in Massachusetts.

“The judges loved this idea. You don’t need to be a parent to understand the value of this kind of service, where you always have a steady supply of clothes at the size you need without breaking the bank,” said judge Colin Webster, who works to spread the idea of the circular economy as an education content manager with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “The team’s understanding of the circular economy really impressed us, not just in their business model, but in the ways in which they proposed to use emerging remanufacturing technologies as well.”

The other two finalist teams—CarpeJur and Greener Haven—were each honored with a $1,000 Finalist Award.

CarpeJur, composed of students from American University of Armenia, Armenian National Agrarian University, and Yerevan State Medical University of Armenia, proposed a closed-loop aquaculture system wherein freshwater fish are raised for human consumption while the system’s natural byproducts are upcycled to create additional value. Algae raised alongside the fish act as a biofilter, cleaning the water so that it can be recirculated into the system. Oil extracted from the algae is used in the production of biodiesel fuel, while the algae are used to create animal feed and the organic “sludge” left over becomes natural fertilizer.

 CarpeJur solution excerpt

CarpeJur solution excerpt

Greener Haven, composed of students from Yale University’s School of Architecture, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and School of Management, proposed to resolve the information asymmetries of the residential housing construction market to connect those who need building materials with those who have materials to sell. The team developed a mobile/web platform combining geolocation and image hosting services to enable crowd-sourced aggregation and sharing of data on materials newly harvested from demolished structures. The platform also provides educational tools to guide users on how to harvest these materials from the waste stream and unlock their potential for reuse.

 Greener Haven solution excerpt

Greener Haven solution excerpt

“As in previous years, the invigorating ideas, global perspectives, and passionate optimism that this year’s teams have brought to Wege Prize have been both remarkable and inspiring,” said KCAD President Leslie Bellavance. “It is my hope that all of our participants will translate their experiences in this competition into forward momentum. I challenge them to build on their existing ideas and to always stay curious about what lies ahead.”

The five finalist teams were chosen out of an original field of 17 teams representing 63 unique academic disciplines and 36 different academic institutions from 12 countries around the world. Over the course of seven months, teams developed their ideas from a one-page proposal into a multifaceted design solution informed by their own research, ideation, and experimentation as well as direct feedback from the judges, culminating in the final presentations on May 18.

Thanks to the continuing financial support of The Wege Foundation, Wege Prize 2019 will again be open to any undergraduate or graduate student in the world and will be focused on developing a circular economy.

Team registration will open in August 2018, but interested faculty, students and professionals are encouraged to begin now by signing up for the Wege Prize mailing list, following Wege Prize on Facebook, and connecting on the Wege Prize Facebook Group.

More details about Wege Prize 2019 will be revealed in the coming weeks on wegeprize.org.

Thank you for your attendance!

Thank you again for another successful speaker series event. We were very happy with the appreciation for Dr. Lanham and the positive feedback we have received about his presentation. It is because of patrons like you that we are able to continue our work for nature, the environment and “Economicology”, the idea that a prosperous economy depends on a health ecology.

Dr. J. Drew Lanham is an ornithologist, conservationist and distinguished professor at Clemson University. He delivered an engaging presentation filled with personal antidotes, analysis and guidance about issues related to the environment, social justice and bringing nature into the urban experience.

We encourage you to visit our website: www.wegespeakerseries.com. We will soon have additional updates and resources of this and previous speaker series events. Please check back soon.

Because of our partnership with the city of Grand Rapids and Aquinas College, we are proud to share Dr. Lanham’s presentation online. Please see link below.

Thank you again. We look forward to next year!

About Dr. Lanham and Clemson University: http://www.clemson.edu/cafls/faculty_staff/profiles/lanhamj

Order Dr. Lanham’s book, The Home Place, from Milkweed Editions: https://milkweed.org/book/the-home-place

Partners

City of Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids Audubon Club
Grand Rapids Public Schools
Grand Rapids Urban League
Latina Network of West Michigan
LINC UP
NAACP Greater Grand Rapids Branch
Sierra Club Michigan Chapter
West Michigan Latino Community Coalition

ON BEING A RARE BIRD: ESTEEMED SCIENTIST DR. DREW LANHAM TO PRESENT AT ANNUAL WEGE SPEAKER SERIES

The distinguished professor at Clemson University will address issues related to the environment, social justice and bringing nature into the urban experience on Thursday, April 12, 2018

Grand Rapids, Michigan – February 22, 2018 – The Wege Foundation will host the 22nd Wege Speaker Series on Thursday, April 12 at 4pm at the Aquinas College Performing Arts Center.

This year’s speaker is Dr. J. Drew Lanham, ornithologist, conservationist and distinguished professor at Clemson University. Dr. Lanham is a widely published scientist, author and poet with work appearing in numerous academic and literary journals. His latest book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, is currently available from Milkweed Editions. Dr. Lanham is also a member of the National Audubon Society and Audubon South Carolina boards, along with several other environmental organizations. His research at Clemson University focuses on songbird ecology.

In Dr. Lanham’s book, The Home Place, he relates his love of nature and the world around him as a child growing up in Edgefield County, South Carolina. As his passion for the environment takes flight, Lanham asks what it means to be “the rare bird, the oddity”—to find joy and freedom in the same land his ancestors were tied to by forced labor, and then to be a black man in a profoundly white profession.

“Birds and people need the same air, same water, same soil,” said Dr. Lanham. “When we agree on that fact, then conservation becomes the inclusive and intensely caring, loving, selfless thing that it is meant to be.”

Lanham’s presentation will provide insights into assuring equitable access to nature and outdoors experiences. “Dr. Lanham’s work directly relates to The Wege Foundation’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Mark Van Putten, President and CEO of The Wege Foundation. “It is our hope that all individuals and families, no matter their background or economic status, can enjoy the benefits of nature and the environment.”

Partners for the 22nd Wege Speaker Series event include:

  • Aquinas College
  • City of Grand Rapids
  • Grand Rapids Public Schools
  • Grand Rapids Urban League
  • Latina Network of West Michigan
  • LINC UP
  • Michigan Audubon
  • NAACP Greater Grand Rapids Branch
  • Sierra Club Michigan Chapter
  • West Michigan Environmental Action Council
  • West Michigan Latino Community Coalition

The Aquinas College Performing Arts Center is located at 1703 Robinson Road S.E. in Grand Rapids. The public is invited and the event is free. A book signing will follow. Limited seating; register at aquinas.edu/wegespeaker

 

More information at wegespeakerseries.com

Earth is Running Out of Time

“My profession is traveling around to bum people out.” So began the University of Michigan’s Peter M. Wege Lecture on Sustainability given recently by Bill McKibben, described by the Boston Globe as “probably America’s most important environmentalist.” McKibben’s news is grim. “We are running out of options” to protect the planet—and humanity itself—from the crisis of global warming. McKibben compared the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere every day to the heat equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs exploding. As to the planet’s increasing temperature, some parts of Pakistan and Iran have reached 129 degrees in the last two years, the highest reliably recorded temperatures in the planet’s history and too hot to sustain life. The war and humanitarian crisis in Syria are directly connected to drought and raging fires like California’s recent catastrophe have become common news events.

McKibben pointed out that the frequency and impacts of hurricanes that devastated the Caribbean and southern U.S. were exacerbated because climate change has heated the oceans. Warmer ocean water absorbs more heat that in turn raises the intensity of storms creating hurricanes. And the amount of carbon deposited in the oceans from burning fossil fuels has increased the water’s acidity destroying coral reefs and threatening all marine life.

“This is the biggest problem we have ever faced,” McKibben told the overflow audience in Hill Auditorium. A commitment is needed similar to that we had to marshal in World War II to defeat Hitler, McKibben asserted. And the deniers of climate change have continuously been proved wrong. “We won that debate long ago.” Instead of wasting time defending what science has already definitively documented, he said, “It’s now time to fight.”

After the “bumming out,” Bill McKibben offered hope in the world’s first global, grassroots climate-change movement, called 350.org, now active in 81 countries. In China alone 350.org volunteers have staged over 200 demonstrations against fossil fuel. The number 350 is the upper limit in parts per million of the concentration of CO2 safe for the atmosphere. It’s now over 407 parts/million and rising. Bill McKibben called on his Michigan audience to take specific actions to combat climate change, including divesting any fossil fuel stocks they own and he specifically called for divestment by the University of Michigan’s endowment portfolio. He also called for shutting down Enbridge’s risky Line 5 pipeline running under the Straits of Mackinac and encouraged audience members to join a petition drive calling for its closure.

The annual Peter M. Wege lecture at the University of Michigan has featured in the past leaders such as the Dalai Lama, former Costa Rica President José Figueres, Achem Steiner, Larry Brilliant, Bill Ford and former Vice President Al Gore.

Pictured above: From the left, Diana Wege, Bill McKibben, speaker for the 16th Peter M. Wege Lecture on Sustainability at the University of Michigan, Jonathan and Marissa Wege. McKibben, former writer for the New Yorker, called his speech on the climate-change crisis, “Down to The Wire: A Hot Fight in a Hot World.”

Wearing shirts that read, “Michigan and the Climate Crisis,” in late October these four University of Michigan students were among the organizers of week-long events on campus confronting the global crisis of a warming planet. From the left, Ben Iuliano, Kristen Sanchez, Iris Rivera, Zachary Hajian-Forooshani.

Here is a video of the lecture

Green Team Teens Dig In to Heal Their Watersheds

In 2009 Calvin College faculty members Gail Heffner and Dave Warners launched Plaster Creek Stewards after learning that Plaster Creek (named for the plaster mill set up in 1840 to use the creek’s gypsum) is the most contaminated creek in West Michigan. Plaster Creek Stewards is a collaboration of Calvin faculty and students working with local schools, congregations, and community partners to restore health and beauty to the Plaster Creek watershed.

In the summer of 2012 Heffner and Warners added a new Plaster Creek Stewards initiative to involve local high school students in watershed restoration. The Green Team students learn about watershed ecology, develop job skills, and help install and maintain rain gardens. The Green Team soon doubled in size when Trout Unlimited sponsored another group of teenagers living in the Rogue River watershed to work with them.

Now a diverse group—the Plaster Creek urban students and the Rogue River suburban and rural students—bonded in a shared mission to improve the environments where they live. These new friends can be heard singing as they work and sharing lunch together sitting in trees!

The 16 Green Team students are addressing the problem of excess storm water that flows into local creeks after heavy rains. So much of the land that once absorbed the rain has been paved over that now storm water flows over streets, parking lots, and sidewalks. That runoff carries pollutants like gasoline and herbicides into the storm sewers where it drains directly into Plaster Creek, Rogue River and eventually into the Grand River and Lake Michigan.

Green Team members learn how to install green infrastructure such as rain gardens and bioswales that capture storm water where it falls. Here the Green Team is creating a rain garden by digging out the land between the sidewalk and street and planting native Michigan plants whose long roots will capture the polluted runoff water before it reaches the creek. After planting the curb is cut so that storm water can flow naturally into the rain garden. This short colorful video tells the whole story.

While cleaning up two West Michigan watersheds is one obvious objective, another goal is to encourage Green Team members to consider college after they graduate. The high school Green Team students work in the field alongside college student mentors and they have classroom sessions at the college, all helping to de-mystify the college experience. This exposure to higher education has inspired this diverse group of teenagers to go on to college after high school.

 

WMCAT Rhymes with ‘WINcat’—For Good Reasons

West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology, an afterschool program for urban high school stdents, opened in 2005 downtown after three Steelcase leaders flew to Pittsburgh to learn about a similar non-profit there. Spearheaded by Jim Welch, the trip convinced Jim Hackett and Peter M. Wege that what Bill Strickland had started in Pittsburgh could be replicated in Grand Rapids.

A gang member growing up in the 1960s, Strickland was headed in the wrong direction until he stumbled on pottery making. Because this creative activity saved him from street life, he started a program called Manchester Bidwell offering after-school educational classes to inner-city teenagers.

Today WMCAT is serving 150 GRPS students who come after school to their building on Fulton where they take classes in the Teen Arts + Tech program. Class size is limited to 12 students and all the art classes are taught by professional teaching artists.

Art students learn ceramics, illustration and fashion design. Students in the technology side learn to make video games, create audio and video productions, and study photography.  In addition, WMCAT has 36 under- or unemployed adults who come four days a week to learn  medical billing, coding, and pharmacy tech so they can find good jobs in the healthcare field.

WMCAT—pronounced WIMcat—also operates a commercial screen-printing business called Ambrose that trains five-ten apprentices  a year. The apprentices graduate from the program with a marketable job skill, knowledge in entrepreneurship,  and the real-world experience of having run a for-profit business.

Last fall WMCAT’s success was recognized nationally. At a November  White House ceremony, First Lady Michelle Obama named WMCAT one of the top 12 winners of the National Arts and Humanities Youth Awards from among 251 nominees. Along with a $10,000 grant, this honor identifies the nation’s best after-school and out-of-school youth programs that use the arts and humanities to improve academic achievement, graduation rates, and college enrollments.

Pictured Above: From the left, Gen-Dairec  Buchanan and Earl Shepherd, two Ambrose apprentices, Jody Price and Kary Furtado Wege Foundation, Wege family members Patrick Goodwillie, Jenny Wege, and Christopher Carter holding the new bags they made  in Ambrose, the closeup shows the WMCAT logo. Supporter of WMCAT from its beginning, The Wege Foundation provides multi-year grants supporting the Teen Arts-Tech program.

Ambrose apprentice Gen-Dairec Buchanan helps Patrick Goodwillie make his screen print. In the background is Adam Weiler, WMCAT’s Director of Social Enterprise. The Wege Foundation is a lead supporter of WMCAT’s l $8.5 million campaign to double their space by moving to the west side of Grand Rapids.

GRCC Steps In To Right an Academic Unfairness

In 2011 Grand Rapids Community faced a serious problem. While 15% of all students graduated after two years, only 5% of African- American males did. Determined to do something about this inequity, GRCC Counselor Dr. Andre Fields and administrator Eric Williams started a program called Alpha Beta Omega as part of the college’s Bob and Aleicia Woodrick Center.

ABO invites African-American male students to sign up for an academic brotherhood that provides each of them a mentor, tutoring, school counseling, and the mutual support of their fellow members. ABO students also have the opportunity to work confidentially with a counselor on personal issues. “And it’s free!” Dr. Fields adds.

ABO’s core values speak to the program’s goals. Fellowship. Scholarship. Ownership. Leadership. Citizenship. Inc

Of the first sixteen students who joined ABO in the fall of 2012, five of them graduated from GRCC and a third will finish this year. Two of the five went on to four-year schools and one graduated from the University of Michigan last winter and another founding ABO student will graduate from Ferris State University this fall.

Over the five years GRCC men have joined ABO, twenty-six have graduated. Four have gone on to earn university degrees and twenty seven have transferred to four-year schools including the University of Michigan, Davenport, GVSU, and Ferris State University, among others.

Last fall the ABO enrollment went into triple figures for the first time. One hundred students enrolled in ABO for the 2016-17 academic year. Kathryn Mullins, Executive Director of the GRCC Foundation, says they wanted to grow ABO slowly but are now ready to expand. “The Wege Foundation’s grant will allow us to sign up 350 students over the next five years.”

Dr. Mullins is looking for new students through referrals from area high schools, letters sent to prospective members, and handouts of ABO literature at school events. She wants to offer more young men what the ABO motto promises. Knowledge is power. We are power. Our fate is blessed. Our destiny is blessed.

*Pictured above: Chris Wege, Mary Nelson, Leslie Young, Sara O’Connor, Christopher Carter, and
Kathryn K. Mullins, Ed.D. Vice President for College Advancement & Executive Director of the GRCC Foundation, meeting with faculty and students in GRCC’s ABO program.

Chris Wege with ABO student Jamarri Key at Grand Rapids Community College.
Sara O’Connor and ABO student Artrell Coker.

Chris Wege, Mary Nelson, Sara O’Connor, and Christopher Carter are all members of the Wege family and Leslie Young is the Wege Foundation’s Program Assistant Director.

The Children’s Assessment Center Beams Light on a Dark, Destructive Secret

Every year an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 children in Kent County are sexually abused. Only 1 in 15 of those cases is ever disclosed. The Children’s Assessment Center was created in 1993 as a safe, caring, place where sexually abused children come—800 of them last year—for investigation, therapy, and healing in a child-centered setting.

This month the CAC kicks off the final portion of a $2.65 million capital campaign allowing them to serve more children whose young lives are traumatized, most often by people they know. The Center will move into a LEED-certified, renovated building at 2855 Michigan NE with 14,000 square feet more than doubling their current space. This larger new facility means children will get treatment as soon as they disclose. Right now forty sexually abused children are on a waiting list for one to two months before they can start counseling—adding to the trauma they’ve already experienced. To date, the CAC has raised $2.25 million.

“The support from the community has been overwhelming,” including The Wege Foundation, said Susan Shannon, the CAC’s Executive Director. She wants to see more public recognition that this dark secret—99% of the abusers are relatives or acquaintances—must enter the light of day to protect innocent children. 53% of the children are under age six. Under six years-old.

Susan Shannon likened it to an “epidemic. And we have to talk about it.”

The CAC is talking about it through KIDZ Have Rights, the Center’s outreach program for children from kindergarten through fourth grade. With age-appropriate language and props, the CAC’s educators make the sensitive topic developmentally appropriate. They help children identify a safe adult to tell if they ever receive “selfish” touches.

The good news is that 21,000 children in Kent County from 18 of 20 school districts participate in the KIDZ program every year. That means five times through their K-4 th grades these students hear what to do if this happens to them.

With the CAC’s new larger building, abused children will no longer have to go on a waiting list before their healing process can begin. And with heightened awareness, more adults will be able to recognize and report when abuse takes place. The CAC is now asking for the community’s help to make this happen.

*Pictured above: CAC Executive Director with Jonathan Wege, Andrew Goodwillie, Mary Nelson, Leslie Young, Wege Foundation Program Assistant, and Susan Bailey from Steelcase who co-chairs the CAC’s new capital campaign.

Wege family members Jonathan Wege, Andrew Goodwillie, and Mary Nelson and Sarah Zuidema, Clinical Director, observe Detective Matt Hooker working with Jaycee, the therapy dog at the Children’s Assessment Center. Jaycee and the toys in this CAC room are ways abused children are healed. Detective Hooker deals with the criminal abusers.

Si Se Puede

At Wyoming’s San Juan Diego Academy every morning begins the same for the mostly Latino students. The Catholic school’s Principal Dr. Manuel Brenes gathers the 210 K-8 th grade students in the cafeteria for a happy greeting, a short prayer, and the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America.

But then comes the most important exchange of the day. The charismatic principal calls out to his students, “Si Se Puede.” And they all yell back, “Si Se Puede! I will succeed in school. I will graduate from San Juan Diego. And I will go to college!”

This Guatemalan-born man with a Ph.D from WMU has done this every day since he became the Academy’s principal four years ago. And this daily motivator is clearly working as his first class of eighth-graders just graduated from high school and every one of them is going on to college. This simple, but effective, morning ritual evolved from Brenes’s dissertation study that showed only 45 out of 100 Latino students graduate from high school.

That wasn’t good enough for Dr. Brenes so he had to find out why and then do something about it. His vision for San Juan came out of that research. “Number one is motivation,” he says—hence the Si Se Puede. Second is parental involvement; third is a school environment that supports culture and their heritage; and, finally, friends who help support other.

Classes are taught in English, but since many are children of Spanish- speaking immigrants, Spanish is taught as an academic subject. Because San Juan Diego is a college-prep school, the students have a rigorous basic-skills curriculum along with art, music, and technology.

The private Catholic school opened in 2011 when six priests saw declining enrollments in their parish schools and decided to merge them into one school. Since Principal Brenes took over in 2013, the student numbers have climbed from 135 to 212—a growth he is rightfully proud of.

At $5,100 a year tuition, few San Juan Diego families could afford to send their children there. That’s where generous donors like The Wege Foundation come in. Every family has to pay something based on income. But the scholarship grants make sure no K-8 th grade Latino child misses the chance to chant five mornings a week, “Si Se Puede! I will succeed in school. I will graduate from San Juan Diego. And I will go to college!”

*Pictured above: Bethany Beachum, Fr. Stephen Dudek, Dr. Manuel Brenes, Emily Aleman-McAlpine, Laura Wege in back;  Elizabeth Hetys, Diana Wege and her sister Johanna Osman visiting the K-8th grade Catholic School in Wyoming.

Diana and Laura Wege watch Ivan Rubio, 5th grade student, working at his computer.
Pictured here on a visit to San Juan Diego Academy are from The Wege Foundation Emily Aleman-McAlpine, Johanna Osman, Dr. Manuel Brenes, School Principal, Bethany Beachum, Development Coordinator, Elizabeth Heys, Development Director,
Fr. Stephen Dudek, Cannonical Administrator, Diana and Laura Wege.