Fulbright Scholar Erika Francks
Erika Francks ’17, is an environmental studies major from Olympia, Wash., who will travel to Lesotho to work on business training and infrastructure for rural solar microgrid customers.
When was your “aha moment” when you realized you could be a Fulbright candidate?
I would say my interest in the Fulbright developed over the summer right after I got back from India. Because we were back in Santa Clara for the Global Social Benefit Incubator, where they bring social entrepreneurs from around the world, they told us all, “if any of you think you have a plan for a Fulbright, this is the time to do it.”
I thought about applying right then, and if I’d gotten it I would have left right after my senior year. But I decide to wait a year because I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to study yet and I wanted to work for a year first.
The summer after my senior year is when I fully wrote out the application. The Global Social Benefit Fellowship experience ties very directly to what I wanted to study for the Fulbright. And it also gave me a lot of personal challenges that I had had to overcome during the research, because not everything goes how you’re expecting it to go. So it was a really good way to prove that I’ve done something similar and succeeded in it. I also tied in other fellowships I did— I talked about Global Fellows and about the Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative through the business school. Pretty much everything was tied directly to things I’d done through Santa Clara.
What sort of “high impact” experiences did you have at SCU and how did they prepare you for being a Fulbright
Global Fellows introduced me to the idea of international travel and working in different environments. That’s when I first got inspired to do off-grid electrification work, when I was in a village there. That led me to the next fellowship, which was Global Social Benefit Fellowship, which led me to apply for the Fulbright. So it’s kind of like a trail of things that keep leading to the next opportunity. It all just kind of built on each other; and I don’t think I would have one experience without the prior ones.
I think a big reason why Fulbright likes Santa Clara students is because we have this understanding of social impact: we want to do research because we think we can find sustainable solutions to problems and not because we want to do it for ourselves and go on this cool trip. We get a lot of that through our classes and through the Jesuit education. We also have the opportunities to put it into practice in our undergraduate career, which is super rare. The Global Social Benefit Fellowship and Global Fellows are really rare in undergraduate scenarios. Whereas someone from a different school, maybe they have the exact same outlook and a very similar idea, but haven’t had that experience yet. So the Fulbright would be their first such experience, whereas we can point to times we’ve done that in the past, and have succeeded.
Where did you observe SCU’s values in this process?
I think that they do a really good job of framing the travel experience as an effort to make sustainable impact in partnership with the community.
Especially in the class before you go to your placement, we go over the difference between social impact and charity, and they are very clear about the fact that it’s much more sustainable to work with a community and figure out ways to make it work for a specific area, so that you’re not just throwing money or resources at a problem. We go over examples of people giving mosquito nets to villages in Africa and then the people start fishing with them— but they end up poisoning all the fish in their lakes because they were covered in mosquito repellent. So you have to think through it and work with communities and then together you come up with a sustainable solution.
How would you describe the responsibility you were given as an undergrad at SCU?
I think the social impact side of it is very motivating to me. I definitely thrive in situations where I feel like I’m making an impact. With energy, it’s such a clear and direct impact that you can measure; it’s super satisfying to know you install a microgrid and you can measure the impact of that afterword and show that you've made a direct improvement in a village. I think it’s all about providing opportunity and that baseline of access to electricity where we can be the catalyst that helps provide it, and people can use it however they want to.
What sort of support did you get along the way?
I came away with very strong relationships with a lot of my professors as well as students in the years above me, that really motivated me to get interested in this stuff and keep researching it. Every time I had an idea of what I wanted to study in my thesis or what I wanted to do for my fellowship or anything like that, I could go to multiple professors who would take time out of their day to talk with me about it and work with me and edit my essays and go back and forth. I think that that kind of also kept me accountable.
For my Fulbright application, I was working closely with Dr. Leilani Miller; I worked with Keith Warner and Thane Kreiner at the Miller Center, I worked with Leslie Gray, who’s an environmental studies professor. I reached out to a lot of different professors that I had and people that I worked with, both for recommendations and also just to go over my draft. I think I went back and forth with Keith probably like six or seven times on both of my essays. It was definitely a very hands-on process with Santa Clara during that time even though I wasn’t on campus.
I think the reason we have so many people apply to these things is that our professors do, if we express an interest, keep us accountable to actually apply and follow through with it. They know that we could get it, and they feel very passionate that we should pursue that opportunity. I think that kind of support is huge, because if I didn’t have professors working with me every step of the way, I might have gotten halfway through the application and then just decided that it was too much and just not sent mine out.
I think also the connections I had with students who had gotten Fulbrights before me was really helpful. They told me about their experience, what they thought the Fulbright was looking for, and what I should highlight. And it also made me feel confident that I had a chance to get it because they had very similar experiences during Santa Clara doing the same fellowships. So I figured if they could get it then there was a good chance that I could as well.
I think overall probably every village we went to had some moment where we met someone, or we saw something, or we experienced something that kind of changed our perception, even if it was very slightly, of the world and our place in it. We met a lot of people through interviews that we did and we learned about their lives and about particularly how energy affects their lives and it definitely re-energized me to keep moving forward in this field because I think that there is so much opportunity to improve people’s well-being just by providing them basic electricity.
There also were some logistical difficulties in India, such as getting out to villages that don’t have electricity. Also, particularly in India, every village has a different language essentially, so we always had to have a translator with us. We had to have our organization basically book all of our travel into these villages and make sure that we have someone from the organization with us. So there were a lot of limiting factors in terms of what village we could get to, when we could go, how many times we could return, so that limited what technologies we could see to help the host organization with its research goals.
Additionally there are weather and other constraints. At one point we wanted to go north to the state above West Bengal but it was monsoon season and the flooding was too crazy and we couldn’t go. Things like that you just can’t plan for. It was good exposure to how complex it can be to work in a different environment in a very time-restricted and resource-restricted situation.