When Joshua Franklin failed, he found the path to his success.
As a high school senior, the Lynchburg native was at first denied admission to the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering, his preferred choice, though he was admitted to the College of Arts & Sciences.
Four years later and living on the East Lawn, he is set to graduate from UVA on May 22 with a major in aerospace engineering and a minor in architecture, while he ponders a career as an astronaut.
Overcoming that initial setback not only helped Franklin discover his resolve, but it also helped others follow in his footsteps.
“It taught me determination, commitment and a little bit of grit, because I wasn't initially accepted,” Franklin said, noting that grit was instilled in him by his parents. “From there, I was able to inspire a lot of other students who wanted to transfer into engineering.”
According to the Pew Research Center, just 7% of undergraduate STEM degrees nationwide go to Black students like Franklin. Now on a mission to change that narrative, he has used his four years on Grounds to leave a legacy that transcends the bounds of diversity and inclusion, not only in STEM, but in underrepresented groups across Grounds.
After suffering that first disappointment, yet still eager to transfer from the College of Arts & Sciences into the School of Engineering, Franklin met Blake Jimenéz-Calhoun, director of undergraduate success in the UVA Engineering Office of Undergraduate Programs. Jimenéz-Calhoun introduced him to the Center for Diversity in Engineering. For months, Franklin hung around the center almost every day after class, studying, doing small jobs and learning from current aerospace engineers. Eventually, he decided to slip his résumé under the door of Jason Jones, then center’s director.
Two weeks later, Franklin became the center’s community outreach student associate, and in the fall of his second year, he was accepted into the School of Engineering.
After that pivotal point in his academic career, Franklin spent the next three years reaching out to a swath of groups in the Charlottesville and UVA communities that are underrepresented in STEM. From local middle schools, to student groups on Grounds such as the Society of Women Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and the National Society of Black Engineers, Franklin has helped ignite STEM passions through the promotion and support of different programs. As an undergraduate representative on the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Diversity Task Force, he is pioneering a high school ambassador program set to launch next fall.
“[The program] is geared toward targeting students from diverse backgrounds, marginalized backgrounds from underrepresented high schools around Virginia, like mine,” Franklin said. “It will reach out to potential talents and bring that diverse talent out here to UVA.”
In the summer before his first year, Franklin experienced firsthand what it looked like to instill confidence in those who otherwise flew under the radar. His UVA summer orientation leader, Nicole Leal, exemplified what it meant to truly be yourself at UVA, he said. Franklin recalled feeling valued and heard, setting the tone for his undergraduate experiences.
A year later, Franklin was inspired to become an orientation leader himself, eager to make the same lasting impact on the Class of 2023. That summer, Franklin not only inspired students to be themselves on Grounds, but also explored identities of himself that he hadn’t previously known were there. Motivated to engage students who were underrepresented, Franklin offered a space to feel heard for those who weren’t comfortable expressing themselves.
“I just wanted to make sure that someone who looked like me was able to represent some of the stories that weren't necessarily told, especially in those contexts,” Franklin said. “That really represented who I was.”
Franklin’s roles do not stop with orienting new students and acting as the CDE community outreach student associate. As a member of the Cavalier Marching Band drumline, a drummer for the Black Voices Gospel Choir, a brother of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, a Lighting of the Lawn coordinator, a Peer Advisor for the Office of African-American Affairs, and a 4th-year trustee, Franklin’s reach has gone far past UVA’s STEM community. And, as a fellow at UVA’s Meriwether Lewis Institute for Citizen Leadership, Franklin has had a strong network of support while guiding others and making his mark across Grounds.
He says that leaving an impact on Grounds is easy, as long as you remain yourself in whatever organization you join.
Following graduation, Franklin plans to pursue a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at UVA while working for an aerospace company. He already has offers from two large aerospace companies, with a position at NASA also in the works. From there, his journey may include obtaining a pilot’s license, pursuing a Ph.D., working in a research lab, and eventually being one of the pioneers of high-altitude aviation.
No matter what his path entails, Franklin emphasizes two key characteristics that he plans to take with him: tenacity and personability.
“You can’t give up, no matter what the circumstances, no matter what you are aiming for, because at the end of the day, your life is your life,” Franklin said. “And always get to know people wherever you go. One of the most powerful things to do is know people, and for them to know you and your character.”
With a long journey ahead, and goals which may transcend our knowledge of space and flight, Franklin still lives by the same lessons that led him to transfer into the School of Engineering two years ago. By remaining true to himself and not forgetting his roots, and by inspiring others to have confidence in their abilities to achieve their goals, he leaves one piece of advice to future students:
“UVA is just a trampoline,” he said. “You can choose how far you bounce based on how much energy you put in the right direction.”