On December 5, 2014, Teófilo Cuesta (’99, Colombia) addressed hundreds of people, including the graduates of the EARTH University Class of 2014. His return to campus was full of nostalgia, pride and happiness. Standing there behind the podium, in front of a new generation of leaders of change, he remembered a December day 15 years before when his dream of obtaining a degree in Agricultural Sciences from EARTH came true. His perseverance and hard work had finally paid off.
Teófilo is the director of the Autonomous Regional Corporation for Sustainable Development in Chocó (CODECHOCO) in his native Colombia. It is the highest position he has obtained in his career and perhaps the most challenging so far. But before getting there, Teófilo had to overcome many challenges, including finding a donor willing to complete the partial scholarship that he was given by EARTH in 1994. When he arrived on campus for the first time, he waited two weeks to see if he could find a donor but, having no luck, was forced to go back to Colombia. Thanks to the good impression he left on EARTH’s leadership, Teófilo returned eight months later when the W.K. Kellogg Foundation offered to cover the other half of his fees.
At EARTH, 70% of our students receive a full scholarship and 86% come from rural communities in more than 40 countries. Teófilo was the perfect EARTH candidate: the son of farmers (now retired), born in the town of Vigía del Fuerte in the Antioquia department, one of eight siblings in total and a resident of Quibdó, Chocó – a department severely affected by armed conflict and inequality. According to a 2014 article in Semana magazine, 81% of Chocó residents don’t have access to basic necessities like potable water or elementary education.
Despite the economic difficulties of growing up in a large family, it was his parents’ example and Teófilo’s motivation to build a bright future for his infant son that drove him to study hard and push himself to overcome the academic gaps that were identified when he first came to the University. “While my classmates went to bed at 8 p.m. I stayed up until midnight studying because I had to get results,” he explains. His tenacity led him to be elected as Student Council President for two years, in addition to serving as the first Vice President of the Costa Rican Federation of Agricultural Sector Students.
Recently, Teófilo obtained his doctorate in Regional Development from Atlantic International University in Hawaii and, inspired by his own experience and the support he received at EARTH, funded Project 73 – a social initiative that raise funds to finance scholarships in strategic careers and award seed capital for graduates to start their own enterprises. He also founded the EcoEnterprises Foundation of Colombia: “It is a foundation that starts with the premise that it is not possible to guarantee the sustainability scenarios of poverty,” he explains, while adding, “With EcoEnterprises Foundation of Colombia, we want to create a source of employment to promote development and conservation through community entrepreneurship and generate real business opportunities.”
His penchant for coming up with creative strategies to address poverty and environmental issues in his region also serves as a springboard for his most ambitious goal: to become the first Colombian president of African descent in 2026.
Teófilo has demonstrated his commitment to EARTH’s mission since the day he was admitted. Recently he made a donation to the Colombian National Fund, an initiative that seeks to link countrymen and women by providing scholarships to students from underprivileged communities. “After graduating, my commitment to EARTH has always been present in my mind. This July I will make another donation that will go towards guaranteeing a full year of support for a Colombian student. I do this with a lot of love, it is really the result of having been educated at EARTH “.
The day Teófilo gave his speech to the Class of 2014, he presented the University with a recognition of their excellent work in conservation, spoke of his achievements as a graduate and demonstrated conclusively that EARTH’s mission can only be achieved when each of the graduates return to their country to make an impact. “EARTH has always said they want graduates to return to their countries and change the world; I really feel that I am fulfilling the mission entrusted to me,” he concludes.
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