Pittsburgh's City Charter team skips unsafe Nigeria

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Hot off a national championship, a team of local high school entrepreneurs will not be attending its next stage of competition in Nigeria because of escalating conflict there.

About two weeks ago, seven students from City Charter High School took first place at the national competition of Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship. With the victory -- which the students earned in recognition of a recycling service they started at their Downtown school over the past year -- was supposed to come a trip to the global competition in Nigeria in August.

But the State Department issued an updated travel warning for Nigeria to reflect the unstable political climate in parts of the country.

In response, City High administrators decided against letting students attend the competition out of concern for their safety.

"Their goal was to go to globals," said Maureen Anderson, a SAGE adviser and activities manager at City High. "As much as that meant to everybody, you have to look at the safety of your children, and the concern was too great."

SAGE, which is active in about 10 states and 21 countries, encourages socially responsible enterprise among young entrepreneurs on a global level. Students create businesses that are judged by how well they meet certain criteria, such as use of sustainable business practices and social media.

Ms. Anderson introduced SAGE to City High four years ago and has overseen the team's growth since then, from its status as a rookie competitor to the national champion among a field of seven in Cincinnati.

This year's winning business, Students Encouraging Environmentalism Downtown, is intended to address a local need, said City High team members.

"There's not a lot of recycling in Pittsburgh in general, and we wanted to have a business that wasn't just for our school but was sustainable and could carry on to other areas," sophomore Morgan Crist said.

With SEED -- which was entered into competition as a social enterprise business, or a business intended to address a social problem directly -- the City High students introduced an effective recycling service to their school for the first time. At the end of each school day, team members go through the school collecting recyclables as an outside contractor would. Previously, the school did not always ensure its trash and recycling were separated, students said.

While the students work on a volunteer basis, SEED is compensated by the school at a base fee of $1,800 per trimester plus performance incentives, Ms. Anderson said. The money is used by City High SAGE for a variety of expenses as well as outreach efforts and donations.

SEED also has helped support the city's green spaces through donations to and work with local nonprofits. The team, for example, purchased plants and flowers to improve the green space in the school's courtyard.

Beyond working on the business after school, on the weekends and during vacations over the course of the school year, the students also spent many hours preparing their presentation for judges in Cincinnati.

Curtis DeBerg, founder of SAGE, and Pete Eimer, CEO of SAGE USA, both noted how professional and well-prepared the team was at the national competition.

"I couldn't believe how polished they were," Mr. Eimer said. "Their presentation was at the university level."

So when they were told last week by Ms. Anderson and school administrators that they would not be able to advance to Nigeria, team members said they were obviously disappointed.

"I think that the hardest part was probably knowing that we got this far and we won't know what would have happened, what could have happened," said junior Laekin O'Hara, City High SAGE president. "That's definitely rough, because just a couple years ago we weren't making it to the semifinals, let alone the finals or taking home first or second place trophies."

Before school officials decided against students going to globals, Ms. Anderson said she scontacted the State Department.

Las week's travel warning, which replaced an earlier warning issued in December, was particularly concerning because it mentioned issues taking place in the capital city of Abuja, where the SAGE competition is to take place, Ms. Anderson said.

The State Department issues a travel warning when it considers the threat to U.S. citizens in a country to be chronic and long-term. While Abuja is not singled out in the most recent warning as an area rife with conflict, the statement references a number of violent incidents that have taken place in the city over the past few years.

Amid assurances from the Nigerian SAGE contingent that the competition still can be held there, Mr. DeBerg said discussion about how to proceed is ongoing, with several options being considered, including the possibility of holding the event virtually.

The students at City High who have worked toward globals for an entire year said that despite the disappointment, they plan to continue their entrepreneurial work and will try to win again next year in order to reach the final stage of competition.

"I think I speak for everyone when I say we didn't just go to the [national competition] to win," Morgan said. "We went to win and get to compete globally and grow from there."

world - education - neigh_city

Gavan Gideon: ggideon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4910.


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