Zoë Timms graduated from University of Wisconsin in 1997, and now almost 20 years later she returns to lead the commencement of this year’s 2015 winter graduates.
A social entrepreneur, Timms has become a leader in grass roots education. She works to help change the lives of impoverished women in India by working to provide them with educations and set them on the track to starting careers.
Chosen for her commitment to education for women, Timms’ address to students will emphasize the importance of using their experiences at UW to live an interesting and full life.
As the founder of the Women’s Education Project or WEP, an organization designed to reach out to women in poverty and help them get into college and start a career, Timms’ interest in grassroots education stemmed from the opportunities she had while attending UW.
During her undergraduate days at Wisconsin, Timms studied history. Many of her courses centered around India.
Fascinated by India’s history, and with the help of one her professors, Timms took a graduate class that would eventually lead to her traveling to India, an experience that would change her life.
While in India, Timms met people of different backgrounds and cultures, she said. Timms rarely saw any foreigners like herself.
“It was this really interesting time of new experiences, incredibly spicy food, eating with my right hand on the floors or tables of many homes, visiting villages, drinking toddy fresh from a tree, visiting mosques, temples, churches, gurdwaras,” Timms said. “I saw how to really push myself in terms of learning — not just through books, but through the experiences in Hyderabad, villages and around India.”
The experience that had the most impact on her life, Timms said, was when she volunteered for a non-government organization for child laborers.
After working with the NGO and volunteering, Timms was inspired by the young Indian girls who had so much courage and desire to learn. Their courage ignited her interest in the field of grassroots education programs — and eventually her foundation of WEP.
“I started WEP based on a need — young women, friends in Madurai, from poor families wanted to study,” Timms said. “They wanted to begin careers. But their poverty prohibited them from studying. We started a center to suit ‘her’ needs — a safe space for young women to study, gain scholarships and resources and meet friends.”
Today, WEP works in partnership with three NGOs, allowing WEP to develop fun and lively centers for their students, Timms said. Currently, there are more than 250 students in WEP.
Timms said students attending UW today have much more opportunities than ever before.
Timms said it is almost common now that students have the opportunities to travel the world and spend time studying different cultures.
“It wasn’t so common 20 to 30 years ago, the opportunities this generation has are just phenomenal,” Timms said.
Though there might be more opportunities for students to travel, that does not mean there are not difficulties, Timms said.
Timms charged students to make sure they take advantage of as many opportunities as much as they can, Timms said.
“My advice is to use the many opportunities available through travel, really observing and learning, and integrating these experiences into your own life,” Timms said.