Not many children under 10 can tell you much about slavery, except for maybe that President Abraham Lincoln abolished it in 1863. Nor can many of them tell you with confidence what they want to be when they grow up.
But Erin Schulte could.
By age 9, she was informed about the issue of human trafficking, and by 13, she knew she wanted to dedicate her life to eradicating it.
Perhaps it is this ambitious spirit that helped Schulte, a justice studies freshman, to receive a competitive fellowship from ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict for the 2014-15 school year. The fellowship includes taking a class with the center’s director, completing research projects under center faculty, attending special lectures, and competing for a $1,000 scholarship.
Schulte said she didn’t expect to be awarded the fellowship, because she’s a freshman and was competing against older students.
“I kind of put it to the back of my mind,” she said. “Just that morning, I was commenting to my roommate. I was like, ‘I wonder when they’ll get back to me,’ but then I checked my email and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I got it!’”
Schulte, who has already conducted research projects since coming to ASU in the fall, said she’s most excited about the research component and plans to research human trafficking.
“I first got into research this semester with Dr. Alesha Durfee on intersectionality, domestic violence and protection orders,” she said. “And so I kind of fell in love with research, doing it with her. … I like to make connections that aren’t inherent or that people haven’t made before.”
Schulte made one of these connections in a recent project looking at the cause of human trafficking in Bhutan and Nepal, which she discovered was the way the religions in those countries viewed women.
She said besides making positive change, she’s also passionate about religion and conflict issues because many members of her family belong to different religions. Schulte views these ideas from an outside standpoint.
“(I have) no religious affiliation,” she said. “I think because I have no particular affiliation with any religion, I think I can look at all of them more objectively and really see how they affect different social interactions and they conflict with one another. I think it’s important for research to not include any biases, (and) I find the whole idea of religion fascinating.”
When Schulte isn’t researching human rights issues, she’s riding her horse, both competitively and recreationally, she said. The activity, especially when it’s not in the competitive arena, is a great way for her to mentally escape from her work, she added.
“It’s a stress relief, because I can just go out there, and it’s in a rural area,” she said. “I can just go out there, and it’s quiet, and I can just ride my horse, and I don’t have to think about the 10,000 things that I should be focusing on in Tempe.”
Jaz, Schulte’s mother, said her daughter has always stuck out from her peers and even her siblings because of her incredible ability to entirely devote herself to huge tasks.
“At 7 or 8 years old, she had decided she was going to recreate Egypt (the way) it was at the time of Cleopatra,” she said. “She even recruited her little brother to help her, and they were literally building in the backyard with sand, rocks (and) palm fronds. It was a very elaborate thing.”
Jaz said Schulte worked on the model for hours, until she finally called her in to eat. While inside, Schulte started reading an article about human trafficking that was left open, and the issue immediate stuck with her.
“It was about a little girl somewhere in the Middle East, and this was a girl close to her age … and this was a girl who had been stolen and sold into the sex trade,” she said. “She read it and thought about it and starting questioning, ‘How could there be a girl in the world, just like me, who could be abused like this? That’s just wrong.’”
Jaz said from that moment on, Schulte was investigating the issue constantly and soon decided she would dedicate her life to solving it. She said this was one of the most impressive moments for her as a parent.
“At that age and in that moment she decided that she was going to be involved in some way in protecting people who could not protect themselves,” Jaz said. “The fact that she went from one big elaborate project at such a young age and then read that and just turned on a dime. From that moment, she has found her purpose (and) her calling. From that age on, she has never wavered from it.”
Jaz said she’s consistently impressed by her daughter’s abilities and determined attitude.
“She’s like Wonder Woman,” she said. “There’s nothing this girl can’t do. She’s always been a hard worker and she’s brilliant, but it’s just like one thing after another. … I’ve learned that when Erin makes up her mind about something, you get out of her way.”
Mark Montesano has been Schulte’s professor for The Human Event class, a required Barrett, the Honors College, course that discusses literature and philosophy, since the fall semester and he first introduced her to the fellowship opportunity.
He said although he presented the opportunity to his entire class, he had a feeling Schulte might be one of the most interested students.
“She has a real open mind,” Montesano said. “She’s one of the few students that I know, that as a freshman, she has a passion for doing research and exploring ideas … so I thought it might be a good fit.”
Montesano, who said he’s been involved with the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict since its beginning, also wrote Schulte’s letter of recommendation for the fellowship application.
He discussed some of Schulte’s most admirable qualities that he included in his letter.
“She has an extraordinary focus and commitment, not just to the ideas but to really make a difference and to address a specific problem, which is an international problem,” he said. “That’s very impressive to me. As a person, she’s very unassuming (and) softspoken, but has a real strong sense of herself and a strong resolve to do what she imagines she wants to do.”
Both Jaz and Montesano said Schulte is destined for great success.
But Schulte said she defines success simply by making a difference.
“I think that my definition of success is helping the world and other people,” she said. “That definition is definitely different for everybody, but I don’t think I’ll ever be happy with my life or consider myself successful until I’m contributing something to the world. … I’d like to make a difference in a lot of people’s lives, but if I can at least make a difference in one person’s life, that’s the mark I want to leave.”
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @mahoneysthename