A New Beginning: The Story of a Full Diploma Scholarship Winner

 In Guest Blogs

“One, two, three, say ROTARY!”

The camera flashed brightly above the towering clouds of Rio, capturing more than a mere moment in time. This photo marked the beginning of something entirely new for Bianca de Souza Fernandes. On this day, Bianca softly plunged herself into the new world she’d been subconsciously searching for, and yet, she technically wasn’t even meant to be there…


A few moments earlier…

Sweaty and disheartened, Bianca and a friend had just hiked up an iconic hill overlooking the sprawling city of Rio de Janeiro, only to discover that they were too late to join their morning yoga class. However, due to a serendipitous turn of events, attendees of a Rotary Fellowship event next door saw Bianca and her friend and invited them to join. Swapping sun salutations for an inspiring introduction to the Rotary and what they did for the world, Bianca was captivated.

You see, from this breathtaking height, masked by the morning haze, the city almost looked peaceful. Yet Bianca knew as soon as she arrived in Rio earlier that year to study International Relations that this city was far from peaceful; in fact, it was saturated with problems.

Originally from a small city in the Brazilian State of Minas Gerais, Bianca dreamed of escaping the comfort of her hometown to explore the world and meet people in real need of her help. Her move to Rio, however, left her shocked and saddened by what she saw. Violence, inequality, environmental degradation, and crippling poverty overwhelmed her. She approached organizations on her arrival, looking for volunteer work, but quickly grew disillusioned. Their efforts felt futile, leaving Bianca to wonder what she could do to impact the vast expanse of issues engulfing the city. Yet through the happiest of accidents, that morning, she found the Rotary.

Three years later …

Both as a volunteer and a part-time staff member, Bianca helped many children in vulnerable situations. She helped the elderly with special needs to learn how to write for the first time. She tutored children in English to elevate their future opportunities. Across Rio, she helped working professionals develop their skills to puncture a hole in the unemployment crisis. Whether it was environmental conservation or aiding the homeless, Bianca began to feel the natural yet exhilarating sense of ease that comes from finding her tribe and falling in love with what she was doing. The Rotary’s mission of providing services, promoting integrity, and advancing world understanding, goodwill, and peace, transformed from spoken words to a living thing, visible through the joy on the faces of the favela-born children after a short English lesson and a good meal. 

Bianca never believed that she had the power to change the world, but discovered through her work with the Rotary, that ever so slowly she could change the world for the people she helped; and that was enough. Then, without warning, the world stopped. 

The pandemic hit. Litter from the recent Rio Carnival was all that remained on the abandoned streets where music and energy once cried out in celebration. Everything was cloaked by an ominous silence. And the cities’ problems didn’t disappear during lockdown, they simply retreated inside.

Covid wasn’t the only sickness that began to spread across the city. Political beliefs crashed violently within the country. Sunbeds were exchanged for mass graves, and grief paralyzed the nation. Bianca’s Rotaract Club family began to crumble too. Club engagement was at the lowest they’d ever seen, and they lost some of their oldest members. Frazzled by world events and the impending end of her degree, Bianca couldn’t shake the rising anxiety blurring her path forward. What would she do next?

What came next…

The panic of unemployment blinded her from what she had been preparing for all along, until one day it dawned on her. She knew exactly what she wanted to do professionally: social impact. No full-time positions were available with the Rotary, so she took to the internet. One short LinkedIn search later, she stumbled across The UPEACE Centre for Executive Education based at the University for Peace in Costa Rica, established by the General Assembly of the United Nations. She discovered that they provided professional development courses for changemakers and offered a Diploma in Social Innovation – it sounded perfect. She could continue Rotary’s mission through getting a qualification that would help further her career in social impact. The only issue she had was payment. Undeterred she followed the University on LinkedIn hoping that a solution would somehow present itself. And it did. 

Some days later, a LinkedIn notification captured her attention, it read: ‘Diploma Scholarship Competition with The UPEACE Centre for Executive Education at the University for Peace’, where the Rotary were sponsoring a full scholarship!

What? Bianca could barely believe it. Days after following the University she discovered that the Rotary Club of Plymouth Massachusetts were collaborating in a scholarship competition for the Diploma in Social Innovation! The timing was perfect. Without hesitation, she applied.

The wait felt like an eternity, until one day the letter arrived:

Dear Bianca de Souza Fernandes, 

Thank you so much for submitting your application… It is with great pleasure that I am writing to let you know that you have been chosen by the Rotary Club of Plymouth, MA to receive a full scholarship for a Diploma in Social Innovation. Congratulations!

A full scholarship!

Bianca was overjoyed. This couldn’t have come at a better time. 

She had just landed a full-time job with an inspiring organization in Rio called Be Hero, and this diploma was designed with in-built flexibility for working professionals wishing to advance their skills in social innovation. It could be done completely remotely too! Without delay, she signed up for her first elective, Skills for Effective Negotiations

Unlike the education she had grown accustomed to, she was able to absorb and apply the course’s content immediately. Through the first course and personal coaching sessions that came as part of the diploma, she learned how to transform her Rotaract Club back to its former glory. Understanding how to motivate and listen to her members, as well as connecting more deeply through empathy formed through self-reflection activities. With this she was able to digest and dissolve all of their engagement issues. Bianca took a lead in reactivating the Rotaract Club, and was thrilled by the instant results.  

Her next enrollment was in a course called Entrepreneurship Innovation, and Social Change. This was where she met Jeanette Langston. 

Meeting Jeanette

Jeanette was a diploma participant from the United States that had just launched a nonprofit organization, and she was searching for greater knowledge, guidance, and support. Her story was inspiring, her ideas were moving, and her perspective was rich. And when Jeanette began to talk about her struggles as a social entrepreneur, Bianca felt her pain. She knew the positive force that social impact organizations possess through her work with the Rotary, and much like the decline of her Rotaract Club, Bianca could relate to the feeling of helplessness that latches onto you as you watch something you love hit breaking point. She also knew that with the encouragement and wisdom of her professor, coach, and peers in her first elective, she was able to watch her Rotaract Club rise from ruin against all odds. Then a welcome wave of clarity rushed over her. She had an idea.

The Idea

Bianca now knew that she wanted to start her own social enterprise to support other social entrepreneurs like Jeanette.

The first elective proved that the theory worked. The second elective gave her inspiration, market research, a business plan, and a safe space to voice her creation to the world – a skill she’d battled with in the past. And finally, just when she needed it, Jeanette was there again; 

Bianca, this is a great idea. The world needs so much more of this. You have to do it.

The start of something new…

Thanks to the Rotary, Bianca found her way, and thanks to the Rotary Club of Plymouth MA, she began her journey. 

There is still time for you to apply or share this opportunity with someone who needs it through the 2024 Diploma Scholarship Contest. The application deadline is fast-approaching on May 15th.

Like Bianca said, alone she cannot change the world but she can change the world for the people she helps. Much like a ripple, even the tiniest drop can make waves. This contest allows us to kick start that ripple effect. Help us share this opportunity and become part of our mission to transform lives worldwide. 

‘I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples.’ – Mother Teresa

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