Turning Passion into Action
REAL student Alexa DeSanctis ’20 shares about her values and the passion that drives her towards making meaningful change in the world.
By Ali Reimer and Ally O'Connor '20
Senior Alexa DeSanctis (Psychology and Child Studies) has always been passionate about serving others. Fitting, for a student attending Santa Clara University. Throughout her time on campus, she has taken advantage of a number of opportunities from being a peer advisor, to participating in an eye-opening immersion trip, to working on a research project through the REAL program that set the stage for her co-founding a sustainable e-commerce platform. Her experiences and her drive have already resulted in positive change and signal the promise of more to come. We talked with her about her values, vision, and time at Santa Clara as she wraps up her senior year.
You’ve certainly kept busy while at Santa Clara. Tell us a little about what makes you tick.
I grew up in Colorado surrounded by the mountains and trees and have always felt deeply connected to nature. My family wasn't extremely into sustainability by any means—we camped a couple times a year and tried to recycle—but the fire really started in me my sophomore year on an immersion trip to Appalachia. Seeing the devastation of mountaintop removal sparked something in me that I can't really describe.
I started to learn about environmental injustice and how many people are suffering because of the climate crisis. While it is easy to blame industries and corporations for single use plastics and pollution, I started to realize, through research, that the collective force of consumers drives the industry—we have so much power. I knew I needed to take responsibility for my own actions.
Aside from my deep love for the planet itself, I have always been passionate about making the world better for everyone. I have dedicated a lot of my academic focus to children who have experienced trauma, and have worked as a therapist for children on the autism spectrum. For the last three years I have volunteered weekly at College of Adaptive Arts, a nonprofit that provides community and courses for adults with disabilities. My students are the most joyful people on the planet and they teach me so much about how we each individually and uniquely get to contribute to the good of others.
You participated in the REAL program last summer. How did your experiences prepare you for that work?
I spent time working with a local ceramicist named Bafana in South Africa. He didn't have a high school education or access to a computer but he had this beautiful idea to help kids with disabilities, while also creating a community and an income, by teaching them how to make pottery.
We worked together to develop a business plan and establish partnerships with local suppliers and markets to figure out exactly what he would need to run a successful business. In six months, we transformed a modest idea into a sustainable business that would be fully independent and operational for at least three years.
This experience gave me confidence that by combining my passion for justice with my curiosity and a willingness to learn, I could develop the hard skills necessary to contribute meaningfully to the world.
Your passion for environmental justice and drive to do good in the world have blossomed into your company, Zarella. What was your focus there?
It started through the REAL Program, which supported Drew Descourouez ’20 (Theatre Arts) and me as we worked together on a research project. We began with identifying companies that create clothing ethically, pursue global, environmental sustainability, and/or donate to social causes.
Throughout the summer, Drew and I pitched our idea to industry experts at Microsoft, Amazon, and EY, began to assemble supply chain data, rewrote our business plan multiple times, created relationships with retailers, developed a partnership with a supply chain analyst, created a website, and more. Mostly, our focus was building a research base for both how to run a business and the current state of the fashion industry.
It all culminated in us co-founding Zarella—a customer friendly e-commerce website that facilitates conscious consumer purchasing.
What have you taken away from this work?
One of my biggest takeaways is the power of ideas and stories. Drew and I were on a mission, and if we could communicate to other people where we were headed and why, they were happy to join us. There is this universal human pull towards the good, and when we can show other people exactly how we can get there, it is almost impossible for people to not want to contribute. We are so grateful for REAL and the opportunity to pursue justice in a tangible way.
What’s next for you?
My work with Zarella helped me to realize that I want to pursue the concept of storytelling as a career, possibly working on development for a nonprofit. I believe that a person finds their career where their unique ability, their unique passions, and the world’s needs overlap. My ability and my values came together through my work on Zarella, and I hope to pursue that same overlap in my career to create a more just world.
About the REAL Program
The College of Arts and Sciences developed the REAL Program to allow students to discover their interests, gain a rich understanding of a particular field, discern their career goals, and explore future employment fields. We believe financial means should not determine whether or not a student can participate in internships, research, projects or creative works opportunities. Committed to providing paid experiential learning opportunities for students, the REAL Program provides stipends up to $5,000 for undergraduate opportunities lasting up to 10 weeks over the summer. Since inception, the program has distributed nearly $1.3 million to more than 300 students.
Alexa DeSanctis ’20 and co-founder Drew Descourouez ’20 at a Sustainable Brands Conference in Philadelphia in November 2019