An opportunity to make a difference

NEW YEAR, NEW FACES: They’ve come from as far away as Sydney, Australia, and as close to home as Chapel Hill, N.C. This year’s incoming first-year class of 3,960 enrollees at UNC features award-winning researchers, artists, directors, dancers, writers, community activists, athletes – and even a certified gerbil breeder. All are bright. All are hopeful. And this week, we meet five of them.


As she drove from graduation party to graduation party earlier this summer, Maria Rojas kept remembering her recent mission trip to Haiti: the sick kids, the hungry kids, the needy-but-joyous kids eager for a hug.


Frankly, Rojas didn’t want to forget.

“I don’t know if it’s something vocational in me, but I know that helping people, in some way, shape or form, is what I’m meant to do for the rest of my life,” the first-year student from Ohio says.

She’s had a good start. Rojas helped raise money for Unified for UNIFAT – an organization dedicated to helping Ugandan children – while she attended Cincinnati’s Mount Notre Dame High School. She also teamed with five other youths to build Charitable Innovations, an organization that grants $50 to $200 microloan investments. The nonprofit group takes donations raised for charities that might not have an immediate impact (because the funds are just sitting in banks) and uses the money to support impoverished entrepreneurs across the globe. When the loans are repaid, the funds are directed back to the original cause.

The intended charity still receives 100 percent of the donation, Rojas explains, and impoverished communities also benefit.

“One of our first loans went to a woman in Argentina who was trying to help her children go to school,” Rojas says. “She had a business making belts and other accessories out of leather, and she needed leather-cutting equipment. She used the loan to buy that equipment … and once her business began prospering, she paid it back and we gave [the funds] to the next candidate we chose.

“It really multiplies the impact of [donations],” she said.

Rojas isn’t finished making an impact, either. The 18-year-old is pondering a future in biomedical engineering and/or nonprofit management, plans to continue her work with Unified for UNIFAT and microloans and hopes to return to Haiti again next summer.

And that’s just for starters.

“Coming to college, to Carolina, really puts things into perspective – the opportunities I have that others around the world don’t,” she says. “And to me, that’s an opportunity to make a difference.”

Read more about UNC’s Class of 2017.

Story by Robbi Pickeral of University Relations.

From Monday: Physicist With Rhythm

From Tuesday: An Independent Athlete

From Wednesday: A Hopeful Healer

From Thursday: A Change Maker

Published August 22, 2013.