University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Lifting Up At-Risk Youth

Maria "Mavic" Punay supports several groups in the Phillipines.

Photo Credit: Celisia Stanton

GROWING UP IN MANILA, “Mavic” Punay (Mavic is a shortened version of her first and middle names, Maria Victoria) helped her mom do invoices for their family-run printing business. Her father was active in Kiwanis International and he often brought Punay (M.D.P. ’16) and her three siblings to the organization’s volunteer activities, which supported children through events like the Special Olympics. 

“I was very aware of the disparity between the haves and the have nots,” she says. “We didn’t really come from money, but at the same time, I was very aware that we had more resources than others.”

Those early experiences in both business and volunteering would eventually set Punay up for a career consulting for social enterprise nonprofits supporting at-risk youth in the Philippines, including Consuelo Foundation and Save the Children Philippines.

For her graduate education, Punay chose the Humphrey School’s Master’s in Development Practice program because it supported her interests while allowing her to take classes across the University, including in architecture from the College of Design. She arrived in Minneapolis in 2014 not knowing a single person, but her randomly assigned roommate refused to let her take a cab from the airport, instead driving to pick her up personally.

“In many ways it felt like finding another hometown—but much colder,” she says of her warm welcome to Minnesota.

After graduating from the U of M in 2016, Punay watched the news headlines coming from home. It was a time of great stress in the Philippines, with a contentious presidential election influenced by false information. Friends who were journalists were getting death threats. The situation left Punay wondering how she could contribute to make her country a better place, even if only at a local level. 

She returned home and accepted a job as executive director for the nonprofit arm of Messy Bessy Cleaners, a social enterprise that supports at-risk youth through the sale of nontoxic cleaning products. (The business hires hard-to-employ youth, with the condition that they use a portion of their salaries to pay for education. They are also taught supplemental life skills, including budgeting, grocery shopping, and finding room and board.)

After a year, Punay switched to the business side of the company as director of sales. She was in that position when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the need for cleaning and disinfectants soared. At the same time, lockdowns and road closures made operations highly challenging. Punay’s solution was to set up operations in her family home, selling products from her living room and distributing them using motorcycle deliveries.

“The most important thing in my head [was] that we were supporting a lot of at-risk youth who were sending money to their families. We could not stop our business because people were really depending on us.”
Maria "Mavic" Punay

“The most important thing in my head [was] that we were supporting a lot of at-risk youth who were sending money to their families,” she remembers. “We could not stop our business because people were really depending on us.”

In August 2021, Punay started her own freelance business, working as an evaluator to help organizations assess the effectiveness of their programs. Her clients include nonprofits that support youth, as well as Samar Island Natural Park—a 33,000-square-hectare park of lowland forests—which has been nominated to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Punay is the head researcher for the project and hopes the park will soon become the seventh UNESCO site in the Philippines.

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