Make connections. Embrace change. Move toward your goals. Remain committed to your morals. Envision new realities.

These resonated exceptionally well with Franklin Alumna Elisabeth (Ellie) Leaning, Class of 2014, from Brewster, Massachusetts, during both her time at Franklin and at present.

Ellie entered Franklin when it was still Franklin College Switzerland as an International Relations major. Having grown up in a family of academics and humanitarians, she knew she wanted to have an international experience and help people, though, as she noted, “I wasn’t sure exactly how that aligned with my specific interests, skills, and career path.”

Soon after embarking down the IR path, she realized she was quite drawn to intercultural work and studies and this brought her to switch to a major in Environmental Studies combined with minors in Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies (CLCS) and Psychology.
Ellie was mainly fascinated by the fact that “in my CLCS classes we were talking about real people, with real issues, adding a layer of complexity and critical thinking that allowed us to learn to look at issues from different lenses, find alternative perspectives, and analyze the overarching system in which we live in, ultimately looking for creative solutions.”

While at Franklin, she also studied abroad twice, first in Kenya with the School for Field Studies and then in South Africa, a country that since then “has become more of a home than the U.S. in many ways”. In Kenya, she immersed herself into a summer research practicum looking at how Maasai communities were impacted by the negative sides of private philanthropy in terms of their health-seeking behavior, and in South Africa she studied community health and social policy with the School for International Training in Durban and wrote her thesis, Nonprofit Organizational Behavior in the Context of Changing Funding Landscapes.

Going into her final year, Ellie found those programs essential in opening her eyes to the complexities and realities of development, philanthropy and aid, leading her to explore alternative approaches. During that same year she also applied for a Green Leaves Grant to fund From Foodie to Food Security, a research project that explored the juxtaposition of food systems in the Western Cape of South Africa. As she explained, “I conducted this research affiliated with Conservation Global, a non-profit organization run by the wife of a Franklin trustee. This network connection was vital in years to come, as it opened many doors in South Africa. I was really interested in how the country prioritized food access to its vulnerable populations and if there were any initiatives that bridged the gap in a partnership from the affluent foodie-type to those who relied on community kitchens or government support for their daily nutrition.”

After finishing her research project and graduating cum laude with Franklin’s Presidential Leadership Award, Ellie returned to the U.S. for a year, working as an analyst at the Affordable Housing Institute in Boston, where she was responsible for value chain analyses of housing finance in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and in Sub-Saharan Africa. “This work was really interesting and intellectually quite challenging and stimulating, but when the director of Conservation Global offered me a job back in South Africa, I couldn’t refuse it,” so she headed back there to manage student programs and design their academic components, including Franklin’s Academic Travels to South Africa and Botswana taught by Professor Armando Zanecchia.

Unfortunately, due to an injury in late 2017, she was forced to return back to the U.S., but that did not discourage her from starting another project: grad school. This past May, Ellie graduated from Antioch University with her Master’s in Environmental Studies, specializing in Advocacy for Social Justice and Sustainability, and with a graduate certificate in Food Justice for Resilient Communities. All this coupled with working fulltime at the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance on Cape Cod and running the Brewster Historical Society Farmers Market, among a few other volunteer and consulting positions.

Today, Ellie is in a significant period of readjustment. She is back in South Africa, working remotely on a variety of projects including planning a conference in Cape Town on cities’ responses to the escalating global water crisis with the Institute for Ecological Civilization, designing innovative supply chain models for local seafood systems on Cape Cod, and helping with the design and community integration of a new wildlife reserve in KwaZulku Natal. Alongside all of these interesting projects, she is also designing and running “Windly”, her Master’s project at Antioch that is now a concrete social enterprise aiming to connect people around the world with verified grassroots organizations working on solutions to environmental and humanitarian issues.

Ellie exemplifies how the Franklin experience provides a solid platform where Alumni can think critically and outside the box, and venture to the edge of their limits. As she noted, “Franklin opened up the world to me in a way that I can’t even fully understand at this point, but I do know I would be a completely different person without it and the lifelong friends I made there. It gave me the confidence and skills to believe that it’s possible to make the world a better place. I often say that, including Franklin, every big ‘leap of faith’ I’ve taken has paid off immensely because I have developed the confidence to make the jump but also the foundation to make it work.”