Jessica Custer will tell you that being awarded a Buckingham Scholarship to study at UA was her ticket to explore the world — inside and outside the classroom. But it was a toilet that gave her a purpose in life.
More precisely, it was the thousands of shacks and toilets Custer saw in "The Floating City" of Belen — on the shores of the Peruvian Amazon — that set her on a quest to make a difference.
"The way they were living was unthinkable to me — it was the first time I had seen concentrated, debilitating poverty," recalls Custer, who was on a study abroad trip to Peru, Argentina and Mexico at the time. "I saw their form of sanitation was floating toilets that went directly in the river. With no access to clean water, they were using this water for swimming, playing, bathing, cooking, drinking. I couldn't understand why it was this way."
For a time, she questioned her choice to major in business, reasoning that if she were an engineer or a doctor, she would have the tools to really help these people. Custer says she soon realized that her business skills did indeed give her the ability to make positive, lasting changes. She began to study social business and sustainable development in particular. "It is development that meets our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs," she explains.
It was the focus of her honors project and it remained a priority for Custer, even after graduation. When she was awarded a Fulbright grant to move to Peru and study sanitation — just six months after joining the international accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche — Custer left the secure, lucrative position to work in the jungle.
The choice was not an easy one, but it was the right one for her, says Custer, who has continued to work on sustainable development projects in locales from Peru to India.
"My passion stems from a personal connection with these people," notes Custer. "I did come from a very low income family. One of the lessons I learned from that is that you have to work twice as hard and you have to have triple the perseverance of people that have means in order to succeed. I was rewarded with the Buckingham Scholarship here at The University of Akron, which gave me the opportunity to change my life.
"So my real passion is working with social enterprise to develop and innovate business models that can increase access to critical goods and resources for people so that they have the power to change their own lives and steer their own development," adds Custer. “It’s very personally connected for me, because someone once did it for me.”
"I've been to 28 countries and a lot of that was during my time at The University of Akron."
"It started with a toilet."
"So much of what goes into creating a good strong business cannot be monetized."
"I wasn't willing to give up being passionate about something to be OK."
"Her philosophy of working and pushing me forward is honestly what helped me to develop many of the skills I use today."
"I have this just inherent desire for adventure and travel … that really energizes and inspires me."
As incoming Honors College students prepared to start their first year on the UA campus, they received sparks of inspiration from four honors alumni — all recent College of Business Administration graduates — who became more than their majors and found success on their chosen paths.
The four, who had all been all Buckingham Scholars, were brought to campus through the Honors Leadership Summit, which is a program hosted by the Institute for Leadership Advancement within the CBA. The institute, established in 2012 by a $1 million gift from The J.M. Smucker Company, promotes the development of leaders with the unique combination of knowledge, skills and principles needed to make an impact on their organizations early in their careers.
The alumni that returned to inspire, one each week, were:
Capping off the series as keynote speaker was Richard Smucker, CEO of his family's company. He spoke about wise and ethical leadership.
In wide-ranging interviews before their presentations, each graduate talked about the value of his or her UA education. From mentors to motivations, from goal setting to overcoming fear, from campus involvement to studying abroad, each shaped an Akron Experience that made them ready for everything that has followed.