Harles plans to manage a nonprofit in youth education.
Becky Harles
Becky Harles

Becky Harles recalls an experience early in life that instilled in her the value of philanthropy—a value that has led her along a diverse career path and ultimately to the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy to pursue an MA in Public Policy.

“When I was 5 or 6 years old, my mom would give me an allowance—15 cents a week,” Harles says. “This was in the 80s. She would give me three nickels, and I would put one in each of three little paper Dixie cups: one to keep; one to save for later; and one to give away.”

This early childhood experience helped Harles develop the philanthropic mindset which served her in the Peace Corps, the nonprofit sector, and early childhood education. Like many other Harris Public Policy students, the common thread in her diverse work history is a profound desire to help others.

Prior to graduating from Miami University with a BA in Business Administration Marketing and a minor in French, Harles recalls feeling somewhat ambivalent about her future:

“I did not know specifically what I wanted to do when I graduated, and I had a marketing professor who made an off-the-cuff remark to a room full of undergrads—I think nobody really heard him at all, except for me. He said, ‘If you don’t know what you want to do after college, don’t get a job that will make you hate yourself. Do something interesting, like go into the Peace Corps or something.’ At the time, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to help people.”

Harles subsequently applied to the Peace Corps and served in Benin, a French-speaking country in West Africa, as a small enterprise development volunteer. She taught women and girls essential business skills and volunteered at an orphanage teaching English.

While in Benin, she met a man named Mathieu who was working on building up the local community. Together, they started a nonprofit to help various community development projects in West Africa. “Mathieu is committed to making a difference in his community, where the political (and actual) climate are changing. He will never give up trying to make his community a better place, which in turn makes me never want to give up. He’s my role model.”

When she returned from the Peace Corps two years later, a friend referred her to a corporate philanthropy role at Exelon. In that role, Harles helped fund several nonprofits in Chicago and learned more about how nonprofits work throughout the city.

While at Exelon, she also volunteered at St. Vincent DePaul Center. “I found that I loved working with children, so I went back to school for a Masters in Early Childhood Education at DePaul.” Harles worked in early childhood education centers in Chicago and New York for nearly five years. She then started her current role at Erikson, evaluating home visiting programs for children in Illinois.

While at Erikson, she attended a graduate school fair and saw an advertisement for Harris. “It was a posting for Public Policy, and something just clicked; something just said, ‘this is right.’”

Harles’s goal is to one day manage a nonprofit, using the policy and analysis background she will gain at Harris. She also hopes to sharpen her quantitative and data analysis skills and broaden her professional network with her classmates.