Outside the Madrid airport, Rachel Robinson ’01 looks frantically for a taxi. She doesn’t know that here they speak more emphatically or that walking in front of cars is okay. Robinson recalled her arrival in Spain, while reflecting on her decision to study the business of solar and wind power industries as a Fulbright Scholar.
A 2005 graduate of Cornell University, she will spend this year abroad at Madrid’s Instituto de Empresa (IE) Business School after winning a scholarship from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.
The government-sponsored “international educational exchange program” annually awards 1,600 U.S. students grants to travel abroad “to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns,” according to the website of the U.S. Department of State.
Robinson, along with 100 other scholarship recipients, chose to pursue graduate study in Spain.
According to The Andover Townsman, Robinson said, “[Winning the scholarship] is almost unbelievable. It’s just a tremendous, tremendous opportunity. This crazy idea – instead of going to Harvard or Stanford, to go to Spain – it seemed to be the right decision for me.”
Even before her decision to study solar and wind power business in Spain, Robinson’s interest in science, renewable energy and international business began early.
Growing up, the roof of her home in Andover, MA was equipped maintained a solar hot-water panel. At Andover, she enjoyed taking science classes and gained a global perspective.
In an email to The Phillipian, Robinson wrote, “Andover taught me to be a global citizen. I remember sitting in [Paresky] Commons at a dinner table and being the only American at the table. That is a rare experience. I could have gotten an MBA in the U.S. but I chose instead to go to Europe.”
“The early exposure [at] Andover… to international diversity helped me discover my interest in traveling, languages and cultures. Andover laid the framework for my interest in international business,” she continued.
Robinson cited the prevalence of large energy markets in newly industrial countries like China, India and Brazil as contributing to international approaches to “the way we think about energy,” in a Skype interview with The Phillipian.
In 2005, as a senior at Cornell, Robinson’s interest in renewable energy soared after she joined Cornell’s “Solar Decathlon” team, participating in a collegiate competition organized by the U.S. Department of Energy to build solar-powered, energy efficient houses.
Robinson’s passion for solar energy led her to spend the last four years working in photovoltaics, or solar electricity. She helped plan rooftop solar-power systems and large-scale, 100-acre utility power plants in Maryland.
Robinson said, “I think energy is important because, especially in the US, it’s something we take for granted. We always walk into the house and turn on the lights. We don’t often think about what it costs, monetarily and environmentally, to get it there.”
“Energy enables every other business in the world,” she said.
In addition to wanting to improve her Spanish, Robinson chose to study abroad in Spain because European countries are forerunners in developing and introducing renewable energy technology, due to large government subsidies for the industry.
Spain pioneered the development of concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) technology, which uses lenses to concentrate light and increase the efficiency of solar cells. The country is also home to the largest solar power tower plant in the world.
For Robinson, the process of applying for a Fulbright scholarship was similar to applying to college and graduate school, with required personal essays and recommendations from colleagues. She was also required to complete a Spanish language evaluation.
Spanish is Robinson’s third language, after French and English. Her initial difficulty speaking Spanish posed an additional challenge during her adjustment to a culturally different environment.
Robinson said, “Day-to-day things like shopping for groceries are a fair bit more challenging. However, it’s really fun to listen to the different perspectives [Europeans] have on the same [alternative energy] industries.”
She continued, “In the U.S., we’re still having the conversation about how quickly or [whether] we should address this [energy] issue. [Europeans] are past ‘should we do it.’ They’re on ‘how should we do it.’ They have a different mindset about [the issue].”
In addition to broadening her perspective on renewable energy, Robinson noted that the opportunity provided by the scholarship also has opened many doors for her future.
“I have the freedom to choose the job where I think I will make the most impact and not the one that will pay me fast enough to pay back my debt,” she said. “It really opens my options in terms of what I do next.”
Robinson’s current school project is for an entrepreneurial class. She is writing a business plan for trash collection and waste management in Brazil.
“While [the project’s] not directly related to energy, it’s got the same infrastructure and feel to it.”