The Promise of a Pencil

The Promise of a Pencil

Rutgers Business School students launch effort to help bring schools and sustainable education to kids in the developing world

Alexis Levine, left, and Jacqueline Atkinson, Rutgers Business School students, launched a chapter of Pencils of Promise, a club dedicated to fundraising schools in Laos, Guatemala, Ghana and Nicaragua.
Photo: Kristen Stephenson

'I think education is a really important asset for everyone to have. What's important is that it's sustainable – once you get an education, you have it for life.' 
– Alexis Levine

What others may see as a simple writing implement, Rutgers marketing major Alexis Levine sees as a powerful catalyst for social reform.

The newly minted club Levine and her roommate Jacqueline Atkinson founded is raising money to help fund schools and promote education in such far-flung locales as Ghana, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Laos.

While still a student at Bergen Academies High School in Hackensack, Levine came away from a 2012 Justin Bieber concert in New York’s Madison Square Garden impressed that the teen idol was donating $1 for each ticket sold to help the nonprofit known as Pencils of Promise.

Two years later, Levine, now a first-year student at Rutgers Business School Undergraduate-New Brunswick, found herself looking around for a charity to throw herself into. She thought back to that concert and to the megastar’s commitment to his cause.

Thus was born the club known informally as PoP, which in its first three semesters has raised more than $700 to help get a classroom built.

“It feels great to know that somewhere around the world what we’re doing is helping someone’s life,” says Levine, now a sophomore.

Adam Braun, a business consultant and avid backpacker, founded the nonprofit in 2008 after a little boy in South Asia told the American that if he could have anything in the world, it would be … a pencil.

After that encounter, the PoP website notes, Braun deposited $25 into a bank account and threw himself a 25th birthday party to raise funds to build one school. Together, he and his buddies collected $25,000, enough to symbolically buy thousands of pencils – and to underwrite a preschool in Laos.

Since then, the organization, now global, has close to 100 campus-based clubs and another 150 in the works, says organization spokeswoman Brittany Sebade. It has broken ground on more than 200 pre- and primary schools in underserved regions and is on track by the end of this year to build 500 schools, train 1,000 teachers and provide 10,000 students with scholarships.

“They (the schools) teach everything from sanitation to math and writing skills,” says Levine, an Upper Saddle River native who hopes to visit one of the PoP schools someday – perhaps the one in Guatemala to which the Rutgers club will donate once members reach their $25,000 goal.

The chapter, launched in the spring of 2014 at Rutgers-New Brunswick, started small, with about 20 students under the mentorship of Payal Sharma, assistant professor of management and global business at the business school.

Adam Braun, founder of Pencils of Promise, has written book based on his experiences working to support education in underpriviledged countries.
Two coffee houses – one at the Livingston Student Center and the other at the College Avenue Student Center – drew about 40 potential members. A FaceBook page dedicated to the club has more than 150 likes.

Club members volunteered for the last two years at Rutgers UNITE half marathon, an annual spring road race through the university’s campuses in New Brunswick and Piscataway. Also in the works are $5 manicures the club’s founders will offer, beginning once or twice a week.

Response has been enthusiastic. Once she explains the organization’s goals to her peers, Levine says, the cause basically sells itself.

Levine says she learned early from her parents the imperative to give back however and whenever you can. “I think education is a really important asset for everyone to have,” she says. “What’s important is that it’s sustainable – once you get an education, you have it for life.” 

And that Justin Bieber connection?

Bieber’s manager is Scott “Scooter” Braun, brother of PoP founder Adam Braun. It was Scooter Braun who persuaded his high-profile client to lend his voice and his talent to the nonprofit as celebrity spokesman, Levine explains.

In addition to taking part in PoP’s fundraising galas and donating parts of proceeds from his concerts to the group, the singer, known for his platinum debut album My World, also has promised to visit schools that donate the most funds to PoP.

Sharma, the club’s adviser, says she’s been impressed by her students’ initiative, and also by their spirit of generosity and entrepreneurship.  “Students have a lot of choices about how to spend their limited time, and the fact that Jackie and Alexis have chosen such a meaningful activity speaks highly about their character,” she says.