Updated: Feb 22
In 2018, Richard Ling was instrumental in launching the Millennium Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. With just four days until the final deadline, Richard grew the Penn applicant pool from four to 28 applicants! Learn what motivated Richard and how he helped build such a robust cohort on campus.
Richard, it is wonderful to catch up with you. Take us back to the beginning. How did you first hear about the Millennium Fellowship? “I actually found out about it on my own. I was working on hosting a competition at Penn called Sustainable Solutions that invited college students in the Philadelphia area to submit a project that addressed the SDGs. The Millennium Fellowship was the perfect way to advance the project.”
What motivated you to help build a Millennium Fellowship cohort at Penn?
“I applied four days before the final deadline. When I learned that we didn’t have the 8+ required applicants (and far less than more competitive cohorts), I realized I would not be a Millennium Fellow if I didn’t get other classmates to engage. I also found that the application process wasn’t too lengthy, that it could be completed in a day, and knew that there were other classmates who had an interest in the SDGs. Throughout any university, I can guarantee, there are students who are passionate about the SDGs and would want to do the Millennium Fellowship.”
How did you recruit classmates to apply?
“For me it was contacting the right departments and the right listservs that would blow the horn. I didn’t actually know all the specific listservs, just that departments existed. So I focused on high level departments - like the electrical engineering department and the biology department. Next, I focused on specific research centers. At Penn, for example, we have the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and the Institute for Urban Research. And then I focused on individual classes. I also tried one or two student organizations - including EcoReps - and one other focused on sustainability.
I took the draft content and compiled the information in an email to spread the application. I put what I hoped they would share directly in the body of my email so that it was all right there and they wouldn’t have to do that work. Making it convenient to share was paramount. I emailed the departments, centers, and classes asking them to share the opportunity.
What happened as a result?
“Some people said, ‘We will send this out tomorrow.’ Others called me to ask for more information about the Fellowship to make sure that it’s something worth sharing. After fielding several calls and explaining more about the Fellowship, I was able to get most, if not all, of the listservs that I contacted to spread the word. This took some work, but once they get it out there, that is all that matters.
The applicant pool grew from four to 28 applicants in the final four days! I didn’t know most of these students and I was completely shocked and ecstatic that so many of my peers also wanted to do the Millennium Fellowship. ”
How did being a Millennium Fellow benefit you?
The Millennium Fellowship broadens your horizons. You learn about others’ passions and initiatives, and these lessons will tie into your future projects. It has a snowball effect.
For example, I didn’t know much about cybersecurity or the challenges with menstrual equity before I joined the Fellowship. I was in a silo, as every college student is within their major or department. In the Fellowship, I learned from my remarkable peers. Claire Sliney was Executive Producer of what became an Oscar-winning documentary short. Carissa Shah with CyberSensibility. I keep in touch with some of the alumni still running these amazing initiatives.
You have this cohort now that are passionate about the SDGs just as you are. That is the coolest part about the Fellowship.
What are you working on today? Are there lessons from the Millennium Fellowship that you apply to your life now?
“My primary job today is focused on renewable energy. It is a huge issue related to the SDGs. I work on solar energy, microgrids, and energy efficiency. After graduation, I also created a platform called SolveOpen, which open sources innovation problems from cities for anyone to tackle.
Most recently I’m also launching Benefact. This was inspired in part by a Fellowship project that was consulting for non-profits. Seeing my peer doing this work during the Fellowship, I realized I could also positively impact non-profits. It inspired the work I am doing now. Through Benefact, I’m striving to help nonprofits raise money through peer-to-peer fundraising.
My biggest lesson from the Millennium Fellowship: Leadership really matters. Good ideas don’t happen just because you think of the idea. Executing the idea is a whole different ball game.
At every step of the Millennium Fellowship, I was challenged to make something happen. It is all about leadership, and that first mobilization is the most important. If you take the first step, then you can take the next steps. Taking that first step is what the Millennium Fellowship teaches you about, and with that, the sky's the limit with the work you can do.”
What would you share with someone still weighing whether to apply?
"If students are planning to try sharing the opportunity with classmates, it seems daunting, but all it is an email that you send out. All it takes is those emails to the right people and they can help find future Millennium Fellows.
If students have more questions on how to draft and send out those emails, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can help. In 30 minutes to an hour of outreach, you might inspire the next cohort of Millennium Fellows who wouldn’t be there without you."
Thank you Richard for sharing your story! Student leaders: If you are inviting undergraduates on your campus to apply to the Millennium Fellowship, here is the draft content to share the opportunity - which can be shared over email, text, and social media. Final application deadline is March 31st.