Without a strong support system and having to work two jobs in high school, Maya Harter didn’t see herself going to college, let alone pursuing graduate school.
“I did very poorly in high school,” Harter said. “I think I graduated high school with like a 2.0 GPA and like 60% attendance rate.”
But she has just graduated from the University of St. Louis–Missouri with a BSBA in marketing with an emphases in social media and supply chain management – a seemingly odd combination of studies but one she discovered she enjoys.
Now she’s poised for graduate school to pursue a master’s in supply chain analytics and work as a graduate assistant in the Department of Supply Chain and Analytics in the fall. She has also completed research on food insecurity that she, along with several other students, presented in several locations including the state capitol for Undergraduate Research Day.
Her journey to becoming an UMSL graduate was one of many twists, turns and decisions to find her niche. It began after high school when Harter enrolled in St. Louis Community College–Meramec. She’d done it to make her grandmother proud but wasn’t connecting to the experience and eventually dropped out.
While attending school, she worked an array of jobs including nannying, bartending and waitressing. After leaving community college, she started working at a spa doing sales, which led to her enrolling in cosmetology school.
After finishing cosmetology school, she went back to the spa and became a practitioner. At 19, she was out-earning her coworkers but grew to hate the work and environment and went back to waitressing. Harter started to feel like she was spinning her wheels and needed to figure out a viable plan for her life.
She got a job at another spa, which made her consider opening her own beauty business. So, she went back to community college and took a few business classes.
“My plan was to keep working and do this entire degree online and then open my own business,” Harter said. “And then I did the last semester at Meramec in person, and I really realized how much more I was getting out of it. And then in January is when I started UMSL. As soon as I got to UMSL, I very quickly realized that I’d been limiting myself.”
Harter initially chose UMSL because of its affordability. She also had a cousin who was attending, and she figured they could go through school together. After enrolling in the College of Business Administration, she realized how capable she was and that she wanted to expand her vision.
“I’m really glad I ended up here because none of this would have happened if I didn’t I love the business program,” Harter said. “It’s totally taken me to a new level.”
While taking business courses, Harter also worked as an intern in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Accelerator program and got paired with Tyrean Lewis, founder of Heru Urban Farming. She focused her project on food insecurity in St. Louis as Lewis mentored her through the program.
“For the remainder of the semester, I was doing business work with him,” she said. “We were meeting every week. I knew about food insecurity and urban farming from growing up in St. Louis, but I got a really deep dive into it. We’re both from St. Louis. I developed a really great relationship with him and got really interested in food insecurity in St. Louis.”
She furthered her research on food insecurity with a project centered on supply chain issues, which connected her to Trilce Encarnacion, an assistant professor of supply chain and analytics.
“We’re looking at supply chain and operations,” Harter said. “We decided we’re going to look at the distribution system as a whole and get interviews with as many stakeholders in food insecurity in St. Louis as possible. So, that’s basically like feeling around in the dark and figuring out what the problem is. There’s not a lot of literature.”
Over their time working together, Encarnacion convinced Harter to pursue a PhD.
“She told me immediately, ‘By the end of the semester I’m going to convince you to extend this research,’” Harter recalled. “Then she said, ‘I’m going to convince you to get your master’s.’ And then she said, ‘I’m going to convince you to get your PhD.’ And I kept telling her that was not happening, ‘I’m done with school. I’m burnt out.’”
But at some point, Harter became open to and even excited about the idea of getting a doctoral degree. It was something she’d never considered or believed she was capable of. But Encarnacion helped build her confidence to pursue post-graduate goals.
“Trilce is an amazing mentor,” Harter said. “She advocates for me so hard. She’s responsible for building my confidence.”
Harter has given her presentation on food insecurity, “Comparative Performance of Food and Nutrition Security Operations” at several conferences and hopes not only to get published but to create substantive change that creates equity in communities lacking adequate food resources.
“My research applies to a lot of different areas,” Harter said. “It can be public policy, urban planning or civil rights. I’m hoping to build off of this research and use St. Louis as a case study because this is a global issue. It’s not just people not having food, it’s people not having consistent access to nutrition. That can look like obesity, health issues, vitamin deficiencies. That can be a lot of things.”
After years of being in survivor mode and not feeling settled in her life, Harter finally feels as if she’s found her niche, her people and her place. She believes her research, supply chain knowledge and interest in food insecurity is the jumping off point for her to be of service with social issues that are important to her.
“This is how I help people,” Harter said. “It just kind of fell into place, and I’m like, ‘This is what I need to be doing.’”