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SOU student finds his passion in 'green' movement

Shaun Franks was working as a chiropractic assistant in California in 2008 as the economy began to tank. With just a certificate in massage therapy, Franks soon realized he wanted to go further with his education and career. And after moving to Southern Oregon and having a son in 2009, he knew it was time to return to school.

"My son was born, and I really wanted to set an example," said Franks, now 28, who graduated from Southern Oregon University Saturday.

He began pursuing a business degree, and after learning about renewable energy during a study-abroad program in Germany, he started to focus his studies on sustainability.

When he learned about SOU's new "green tag" program, which took student fees and applied them to renewable energy practices, he knew he wanted to get involved.

But Franks found the program flawed, because even though the money was being used by the Bonneville Power Administration to fund clean energy, it wasn't being distributed to local projects.

"It wasn't being invested in Southern Oregon," said Franks. "And nothing tangible was really happening on campus." So Franks spearheaded an initiative to change the green tag program into the "green fund," using the student fees for projects on campus, such as solar panels, gardens and offsetting the university's water use.

Students voted 78 percent in favor of the change. As of this year, students pay $13 per term in student fees into the green fund, generating about $50,000 per term to use on sustainability projects.

To date, the fund has paid for solar panels to be installed on top of Stevenson Union and a portion of the cost for more panels on top of the new SOU dorms. The money has been used to offset all of the water used on the SOU campus, and to start a new bike-sharing program.

With the capacity to generate about $1 million every six years, Franks said the potential for new initiatives is broad.

One such project is probably Franks' greatest accomplishment while attending SOU — a newly opened the Center for Sustainability.

The 5-acre property sits on SOU land behind the ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum off East Main Street. So far it features a greenhouse, vegetable gardens and the makings of a small amphitheater, all funded through the green fund.

Also on the property is an old building that's been used for SOU Family Housing, as the Dunn House shelter for women through Community Works and even before as a family home.

Franks hopes the building will be transformed into a space that showcases green building practices and design, but that task will be left up to the students who will follow in his footsteps.

"All of these things are on autopilot now," said Franks, who is one of 1,248 students receiving degrees from SOU this year. Franks walked at the graduation ceremony that began at 9 a.m. Saturday at Raider Stadium on Wightman Street in Ashland.

Although Franks now has graduated, the green fund will continue to operate as it did this year, with a committee tasked with reviewing proposals for how to spend the money that's generated.

Franks' oldest son, Carter, is now 4, and he and his wife, Erica Franks, have another son, Micah, who is 1.

Being able to set a positive example for his children helped push Franks to succeed at SOU, and his drive has been recognized in numerous ways.

His tuition for the past two years has been fully covered — last year by the James and Betty Akerill Scholarship and this year by the Robert Ruhl Learning Fellowship.

Franks' leadership positions and accomplishments as a student are enough to pack a professional resume — he's been the director of community relations and the director of sustainability for the student government, a development associate at the SOU Foundation, a Green Task Force intern at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and he continues to serve as the development director for the Center for Sustainability.

Franks hopes to pursue work in renewable energy after graduation, preferably in Southern Oregon.

"The innovation of it all is really exciting," he said. "We can't really rely on the old ways anymore. Something has to change." Franks said he often reads "The Lorax," by Dr. Seuss, to his oldest son, and said he connects one line from the story to his own pursuits in sustainability.

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing's going to get better. It's not."

Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at teresa.ristow@gmail.com.

Shaun Franks, a Southern Oregon University student who will graduate today, helped found the SOU Center of Sustainability. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch