The wonderfully brilliant, passionate, and driven people at Stanford still cease to amaze me. And this is just at Stanford.
What they go on to do after The Farm is incredible. The first person I’m profiling was actually an alumnus I profiled for The Stanford Daily, but her dedication to a cause she believes in was genuinely awe-inspiring. To physically build, from the ground up, the non-profit organization FORGE, which directly helps African refugees displaced by war is an astonishing feat that deserves recognition over and over and over again.
So, I present KJERSTIN ERICKSON:
August 28, 2008
Based on the eight combined surfboard trophies that Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers walked away with at this month’s Teen Choice Awards, it might seem like pop sensations are the only thing on teenage minds. Still, more serious and worldly issues — like transforming the lives of African refugees through education, empowerment and economic self-sufficiency — seem to have a place as well.
Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth and Empowerment was started by Erickson in her Junior year at Stanford. After traveling multiple times to countries in Africa and seeing the need for support first hand, she knew it was time to take action.
Kjerstin Erickson ‘08, 25-year-old founder and executive director of FORGE (Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth and Empowerment) was one of nine nominees for the “Do Something Award,” the only non-celebrity award presented at the Aug. 4 Teen Choice Awards. Though she didn’t win, the show’s producers were impressed with the unbridled passion and selfless dedication that she and the seven other runners-up had shown, and each was presented with $10,000 for their respective organizations and efforts. Chad Bullock, an anti-smoking activist, won the $100,000 grand prize.
“It was still really great. Such a cool thing,” Erickson said. “Any time the organization makes money, it’s just a huge sigh of relief.”
Finances are among the many things that Erickson manages at FORGE, which she founded during her junior year at Stanford. Many events brought her to that point, including traveling to Kenya as a high-schooler, majoring in public policy and international education, traveling to a refugee camp in Botswana with a Stanford student group and leading a voyage to Tanzania during her Semester at Sea.
“The Tanzania visit was just supposed to be a one-time project, but during my Semester at Sea, I met people and talked to them and started thinking about what was larger than just myself,” Erickson said. “The seeds started to germinate in terms of what I was passionate about.”
When Erickson saw that the international system was not taking care of refugees, she decided that something needed to be done.
“We got a group of 25 students to return the next summer, and in 2004, we hit the ground,” she said. “I thought, ‘This has to go somewhere.’”
And to Africa it went. What started out as a Stanford trip evolved into an organization with a permanent, Oakland-based office, 12 full-time international field staff and three camps of 150 refugee staff members. Erickson took three years off from college, earning a degree in 2008 instead of 2005.
“In the first few years, a lot of my family thought ‘Oh, she’s just doing her thing,” Erickson said. “But then they realized, ‘I guess this is kind of serious!’”
To support FORGE, Erickson was granted a $5,000 Haas Public Fellowship, $10,000 from the Facebook Causes Challenge, an extra $17,000 in donations and an official partnership with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Yet, while Erickson pours her heart and tireless devotion into the organization, it’s easy to forget that she’s just a few years out of college and that she was once the typical driven, intellectual, well-rounded Stanford student. In the years before FORGE, Erickson was a Miss Sonoma County, as well as heavily involved in volunteering — something her family, particularly her mom, had instilled in her since she was young. Creating a Montessori-based math tutoring program for homeless children, volunteering with a mentally and physically disabled baseball league and chairing a Youth Volunteer Corps are just a few of Erickson’s many magnanimous efforts.
Though she had already started and managed a successful non-profit organization, returning to Stanford was something Erickson had to do.
“I just loved all the extra resources more than everything else,” she said. “Going back to school makes you realize how much is at your fingertips. Stanford makes it really easy. Not every student gets that from their college.”
“School forces you to question your place in the world,” she added. “It makes you really skeptical of how much you can do and how you’re going to do it. It can feel frustrating and just inhibiting, but ultimately the professors and general academic environment and international development pushed FORGE to be as solid as it could be.”
Building on this foundation, FORGE is beginning to transfer responsibility to the refugees and let them collaborate in and start projects where, according to Erickson, they see a need for the organization’s most exciting future projects. Erickson and FORGE are also looking to expand into Congo, where refugees are currently returning.
This constant foresight is characteristic of Erickson’s dedication to FORGE.
“Kjerstin is tirelessly devoted to what she does,” said FORGE Programming Director Abby Speight ‘08. “Even as a 25-year-old, she works all the time. You don’t find that in many people, especially if they don’t make that much money. She also stopped out of college and finished her degree while working full-time. Hers was just such a unique situation.”
A unique situation for a unique person. Like the many other Stanford graduates before her, Erickson has continued to follow her passion, helping the world one selfless effort at a time. And now, maybe the millions of teens who saw her nominated at the Teen Choice Awards will follow, too.