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Juan Felipe Diaz

Class of: 2016
Hometown: Bogota, Colombia
School: College of Arts and Science
Major(s): Economics

Throughout his first semester at Vanderbilt University, Juan Felipe explored a plethora of service organizations. He was involved in the building of houses for families in need with Habitat for Humanity and he cooked and visited ex offenders living at Dismas House. Additionally, he served as a Spanish tutor at Vanderbilt’s School for Science and Engineering and volunteered to pack food at the Second Harvest food bank. The highlight of his semester was becoming an official translator for Kiva, the world’s largest online micro finance company. His involvement with this organization improved his understanding on how micro financing can be an alternative to break the poverty cycle in developing countries.

During his second semester, Juan Felipe’s service was more focused. He served the homeless in Nashville by teaching a Spanish class at Room in the Inn, Nashville’s second largest homeless shelter. Through this class, he was able to build strong relationships with his students and increase his understanding of homelessness. During his spring break, Juan Felipe participated in the National Coalition for the Homeless’ “Homeless Challenge” program, in which he lived on the streets of Washington D.C as a homeless man for two days. This was a very enriching, eye-opening and educational experience for him because although he had interacted with the homeless community on a daily basis through his work at Room in the Inn,  “going homeless” provided him with a unique perspective on the current challenges of this widespread societal problem.

As a second year student, Juan Felipe became a board member of Grassroots, a student-run service organization. Grassroots provided Vanderbilt students with weekly service opportunities, allowing them to engage with the Nashville community. It also organized speaker events that aimed to bring attention to critical societal issues such as food deserts and homelessness. In addition to his role on the board, Juan Felipe taught weekly ACT prep classes at the Oasis center. The purpose of this course was to reduce the socioeconomic barriers to college that many kids from disadvantaged backgrounds face as a result of deficient preparation for standardized tests.  His work at Oasis particularly focused on one-on-one tutoring for math and science. The goal was that with this additional support, these kids would be able to get into the college of their dreams and be eligible for scholarships. Simultaneously, Juan Felipe taught financial literacy lessons to seniors at Hillwood Highschool through Moneythink. He touched on topics such as the meaning of net worth, the financial benefits of going to college and how to go about setting goals and following through with them.

For his summer project, Juan Felipe travelled to Kigali, Rwanda and worked with Urwego Opportunity Bank, the largest microfinance institution in the country. In partnership with his fellow scholar Nick DeNuzzo, he spent two and a half months conducting a statistical evaluation of the impact of Urwego’s loans on both its staff and its clients. A countrywide survey of the loan products was conducted and recommendations regarding the conditions of the loans were presented to the management of the bank. Through an analysis of practices at comparable institutions, Juan Felipe and Nick persuaded the bank to change the strict conditions of its loans, amplifying the impact that the microloans had in the lives of their clients. The second part of his project involved the structuring of mortgage loan and construction loans, products not previously offered by the bank. Additionally, Juan Felipe and Nick consulted with several construction companies to establish a partnership between the bank and these companies in order to launch a pilot project to improve the housing situation in Kigali. After extensive research of the housing market in Kigali and the current demand for affordable housing, the bank agreed to finance the construction of 100 affordable housing units. These homes will be for the benefit of both the bank’s staff and the clients. The establishment of this partnership between the construction companies and the bank will create significant synergies. On one hand, the construction companies secured a source of financing and on the other hand the bank reduced the risk of construction loans by making sure that their clients were investing their loans in quality assets. More importantly, the clients will benefit because the process of financing and constructing their homes is streamlined. In addition to the work with Urwego Opportunity Bank, Juan Felipe’s experience in Rwanda was incredibly enriching from a cultural point of view. He had the opportunity to travel to other East African countries after completing his work at the bank, expanding his understanding of the region.

During his third year at Vanderbilt, Juan Felipe focused on working with Hispanic immigrants in Nashville. In partnership with his fellow scholar Jordan Clark, he taught English as a second language and organized several events to raise awareness about the services provided by the organization that they worked for. During his second semester, Juan Felipe’s service was a lot more international since he lived in different parts of South America and Europe during this time. While in Colombia, he worked with Fundación Santa Isabel, a halfway home for girls that live in abusive homes. This non-profit sustains itself by running its own thrift store, which he helped manage and staff. The highlight of his experience was realizing how to make an organization sustainable by combining a business component. Whilst in Germany, he volunteered at a local soccer team in Berlin that provides free soccer clinics to immigrant children who have sought asylum in Europe. Playing soccer helped integrate kids from completely different backgrounds and served as a first step to help these culturally distinct groups live in one city.