Stephanie Bonduki Salem, class of 2011

“I owe my achievements to the support I received from St. Paul’s”

Stephanie is the young face and hands behind PrepMe Education, a college counseling company that helps students get into the best school and courses for them. Prior to founding her own company at the age of 25, she graduated from Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, with a degree in Economics, specialising in Finance and Behavioral Economics. At university, she worked with research and as a teaching assistant, which led her to apply for a master’s degree. In 2016 she was admitted to Columbia University for a master’s in public policy, but decided to return to Brazil in order to pursue her dream of starting an education business. She is now a director of the Wharton Club of Brazil and is the Brazilian ambassador for her graduating class. 

Stephanie is above all a proud Old Paulean, class of 2011. While celebrating 10 years of leaving St. Paul’s, she also shares some reflections on what is so special about St. Paul’s.

Stephanie at the school’s main entrance

What brought you to St. Paul’s? Do you have other family members who are former pupils?

I started at St. Paul’s in PP1 with Mrs Stevens. Obviously at the time I had little to no say in where I wanted to study. However, I think my mother chose St. Paul’s for a variety of factors, such as the value of a British and international education, her interview with Mr McCann (headmaster at the time), and the fact that my older siblings and cousins had studied there. In fact, some of my nephews are current Pauleans!

Tell us more about your experience as a St. Paul’s pupil. I can see you were involved in several activities.

I’ve always been inclined towards the arts, especially music. I played the violin and sang in most concerts. I also helped backstage in school plays by coordinating makeup. For a while, I was part of the JV and Varsity Volleyball teams, and took knitting classes with Dna. Anna. I remember I registered for the latter because I had never had a chance to take an academic class with Dna Anna, so that was the only way I could really get to know her. It turned out to be a great activity, during which I not only learned how to knit, but also gained a great deal of knowledge about Brazilian literature and culture. I was also part of the Yearbook Committee and a Prefect.

What made St. Paul’s special? What is your fondest memory of the school? Did you have a teacher at St. Paul’s who was particularly impactful? What about the school’s traditions?

I have so many memories! I could get in trouble for telling you this, but I remember that when I was younger, there wasn’t a wall at the front like there is today. It was a green fence instead. During lunch, my friends and I would buy “contraband” ice cream from the sorveteiro up front, who would pass us the produce through the fence. There were also the yearly photographs with Bernard Moss who would whistle for us to look forward, and have our hair combed by his assistant. I know these are small things, but they were impactful. In terms of teachers, I could talk about all of the ones I had. However, my most “impactful” ones were Mr Green who made Physics seem easy and encouraged me to take HL Physics Mr. Newton who encouraged me to sing and perform in public and compose; Mrs D’ Heursel who taught me how to research and introduced me to art history; Mr Preece who showed me the relationship between science, philosophy, and art, Mr Cooper Blanks, who introduced me to economics; and Dr Hallinan, with whom I speak often because of my work.  

Do you still remain in close contact with your friends from St. Paul’s?

Although we graduated almost 10 years ago, I still remain close to most of them. Every now and then we have a reunion in SP when, not only do we catch up on each other’s lives, but we also reminisce on our good times at St. Paul’s. I was also bridesmaid to two of my closest St. Paul’s friends.  

How did your studies lead you to your career choice?

I was always interested in a variety of subjects. When I had to make the hard choice of only picking six subjects in the IB, I was devastated, but it all worked out. Although I ended up studying finance and behavioral economics at university, I chose to go to the US precisely because of the academic flexibility I would encounter there. Eventually, I started my college counseling business because not only do I love mentoring students in their university choices and admissions process, but it also allows me to remain in contact with a wide variety of disciplines. I have students who are science enthusiasts, artists, aspiring economists, etc. That means that I am constantly learning with and from them as well. That is priceless.   

Did your experience at St. Paul’s impact on developing your own business?

Most definitely. I owe my achievements to the support I received from my St. Paul’s college counselor (Mr Thomas) and teachers. With the growing number of Brazilian students looking to study abroad, I also saw a growing demand for the type of support that I received at St. Paul’s. However, not all Brazilian schools have that type of expertise or capacity to personalise the counseling for each individual student. That’s where I come in.

In your journey, have you already worked with other Old Pauleans, at the workplace, as a mentor, etc,?

I have mentored a number of Old Pauleans in their university admission processes in the recent years, both for undergrad and postgrad programs. Moreover, I have currently employed an Old Paulean as my intern. Although she is a law student at PUC-SP, she wanted to get to know about my work as an independent college counselor, and has been a great asset to PrepMe Education.

What are some skills you learned at St. Paul’s that apply to your professional life?

Punctuality, punctuality, punctuality. If I’m not at least 10 minutes early to a meeting or appointment, I feel like I’m late, even if I’m technically on time. That is definitely something that St. Paul’s has taught me, and it is a skill that is very much appreciated professionally. At St. Paul’s I also learned how to dress professionally. Although in college I could (and oftentimes did) dress informally, I always kept in mind how one should dress appropriately to certain occasions. Despite the workplace having become more informal with the rise of startup culture, how you present yourself definitely affects how others see you as a professional. 

If you were to go back in time, what advice would you give to your teenage self?

I was constantly worried about defining what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. However, if I could go back in time, I’d tell myself to just do and choose disciplines and activities that I genuinely enjoyed, ignoring outside pressure. Whatever I ended up doing wasn’t going to define what I would do “for the rest of my life”. After all, although I am an economist, I work with education. Career changes and/or starting independent ventures are becoming evermore common. What you do in high school or college will rarely define the rest of your life (with some exceptions of course). Therefore, that is what I would tell my younger self: just relax and do what you enjoy.

What is your proudest professional moment?

The moment I signed the lease to my office two years ago. When I opened my company, I worked at home for a year to see if I’d be financially able to rent and refurbish an office. I invested the money I saved during that first year in my office, and it was worth it!

What advice would you give to St. Paul’s pupils, especially those who are starting preparation for universities?

Do not worry too much about university rankings or prestige. You don’t have to go to Harvard to get a good education and college experience.