Wall Street to Walnut Street: Louie Zuniga, Coverdell Fellow

Jesus “Louie” Zuniga flaunted his boots and cowboy hat during a recitation hour session where we shared something about our backgrounds with the rest of the cohort. Houston, Texas, is home to him. Growing up in a large metropolis got him curious about different people, languages, and cultures. It probably explains why he chose to study a year abroad in Brazil as an economics and international affairs student at Amherst College. Though he had learnt about developmental economics, in theory, he saw how it played in Rio De Janeiro. I guess it is too well hidden in the US to notice! Moved by the vast inequalities, he wanted to explore the role of education in the development landscape. When he returned to college, Louie took courses in education that “rocked his world”. He was introduced to how education was a building block for personal, societal, and global development. It got him thinking about his own education, the privilege that came with it, and what it meant in terms of available opportunities. A decade later, we see him at Penn GSE, on Walnut Street, always with a joke up his sleeve and a sincere passion for questioning the status quo.

After college, he continued to be on the professional path he had earlier chosen and became an investment banker in Wall Street, while also volunteering in education programs. After being a ‘Finance Bro’ for quite a while, he realized he had to give his passion for education a real shot. Moving sectors was daunting for Louie. His first step was obtaining his CELTA certification, with which he applied to Peace Corps and landed in Cameroon. The challenge of working with limited resources, engaging communities, and teaching through project-based learning was invigorating for Louie.

We built a learning garden in village schools through which kids learnt about nutrition, agronomy, language, experimentation, and a lot more. The best part was witnessing the ‘Aha!’ moments with just a chalk and 80 kids.

With insight into good developmental practices and a renewed zeal to learn more about the intersection pf education and development, he worked at the Latin American Leadership Academy (LALA). His experiences aligned with their mission of improving local youth leadership to ensure local, sustainable development. Based in Colombia, Louie worked on the business development end of the organization. Louie credits his mother for being his coach in organizing philanthropy and fundraising, leveraging her experience to grow into his role as the Director of Development at LALA and expanding its impact in Puerto Rico.

What I have seen is that the for-profit sector tends to deepen inequities. The non-profit sector, through challenging, moves the needle for equity.

Louie was committed to cementing his career path in the sector. He decided to pursue an M.S.Ed in IEDP with a dual degree in Non-profit Leadership (NPL). It was the perfect fit! As required, Louie applied to both programs separately. Both the programs had the Coverdell Fellowship opportunity for Peace Corps volunteers. Applying to them was as simple as ticking a box that said he served in the Peace Corps. Then, he had a provide evidence of his service and fill out a form. Note that Peace Corps volunteers are automatically considered for the Coverdell Fellowship.

Louie got accepted into both the programs with their respective fellowships. This meant a highly discounted cost of studying a dual-degree program at Penn! I asked him to share with us what the first semester in both programs was like:

If the Penn experience was a language, IEDP is my vocabulary, NPL is the verb. It beautifully combines theory and practice of the things I really care about.

Louie's students doing an activity.
Louie’s students doing an activity.

For all prospective students reading this, remember that everyone’s journey is very different, but the desire to learn and create impact is consistent. Here is Louie’s nugget of wisdom for you:

My advice would be to carefully consider if you should apply fresh out of college or after gaining some work experience in education. Coming to the IEDP with more experience changes what you take away from it. The IEDP helps you learn, unlearn, build, and refine your skills, knowledge, and mindset. Having said that, don’t just think about what the IEDP will give you, but also what you bring to the table!

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