A Commitment to Success
Professors Karina Garbesi, Erik Helgren awarded CSU Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award
Social Impact Solar Program
Cal State East Bay’s Karina Garbesi and Erik Helgren were announced Tuesday as two of 26 recipients of the annual California State University Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award.
The dynamic duo is behind the university’s Social Impact Solar program, a physics-environmental studies hybrid course started in fall 2015 in partnership with the organization We Care Solar’s “We Share Solar” program. The program allows students to learn about solar energy design for social impact by building stand-alone solar power and lighting systems called “solar suitcases" which are sent to energy-impoverished schools and orphanages around the world.
According to the CSU, the annual awards recognize faculty members who have exhibited a commitment to student success as outlined in the system’s Graduation Initiative 2025. Some are granted to campus teams, others honor faculty leaders, but all have demonstrated expertise in a variety of fields, according to the CSU.
“World-class CSU faculty are leading the charge as our university continues its remarkable progress in improving student learning and degree completion,” said CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White. “These exceptional recipients demonstrate leadership in their respective fields and incorporate cutting-edge techniques into curriculum. Their commitment to student success ensures that the value of a CSU degree continues to increase.”
Helgren said he is honored and humbled to receive the recognition and credited his Cal State East Bay colleagues for making the university a “wonderful place to work.”
“Our shared passion and commitment to social justice and STEM education issues were what originally brought us together to dream up co-teaching a class,” Helgren said. “In the end, it has just been so much fun and richly rewarding seeing the impact this class has had on our students’ lives not only during the term they were in our class but also beyond, through their volunteering, internships, participation with partner nonprofits and into their careers.”
For Garbesi, the Social Impact Solar Program has been what she called the most fulfilling work of her career.
“I am so grateful to this university and the CSU system for enabling me to share my passion for direct action on sustainability and social justice with our students through our Social Impact Solar Program,” Garbesi said. “We owe our success to so many individuals, organizations, and funders who have partnered with us that it is impossible to name them all; but I must at minimum mention those to whom I owe the most. I am particularly grateful to Professor Helgren, at Cal State East Bay, and Dr. Hal Aronson, of We Care Solar, for their partnership in the development of this project throughout every stage. It has been an audacious journey, which they have made an enormous pleasure – despite the intermittent trauma.”
She also credited university president Leroy Morishita’s support for the pilot solar suitcase class and the ongoing financial support from the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.
“[And,] thanks to Assistant Vice Chancellor, Elvyra San Juan, we were able to launch our Summer Solar Suitcase Workshop at the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation this year, which enabled our CSU students to work with tribal youth, building and installing Solar Suitcases, sharing their lives and stories for a week in the ancestral tribal lands in the beautiful Trinity Alps,” Garbesi said. “Thanks to all of the participating CSU students, the middle and high school students, their teachers, to our participating colleagues at San Francisco State, Monterey Bay, Humboldt State, and Cal Poly SLO, and to our new Native American collaborators in state and out. Together, we really can improve the lives of current and future generations.”
Helgren and Garbesi, along with the 24 other awardees, will be formally honored in mid-October and will each receive a $5,000 cash award. An additional $10,000 will be given to their respective departments to support innovation and student success.
Funding for the awards is provided by the College Futures Foundation and the James Irvine Foundation, both organizations that see faculty innovation and leadership as vital to improving outcomes for California’s diverse students.