Love at first listen

Words by Kim Hart

An unlikely connection

We first met Louisa Ulrich-Verderber four years ago. She was in her welding shop, passionately describing her plan for how she was going to change education—starting with her own. We were on YouTube.

Louisa had submitted a video application for EF’s Global Citizen Scholarship. We were enraptured with her ideas back then, and after catching up with the artist and inventor a few weeks before her 21st birthday, we can safely say we’re still card-carrying members of her fan club.

There is a lot to know about Louisa, so here’s the CliffsNotes version: She learned to weld at age 12. She sees colors when she listens to music. She is heading into her junior year at Clarkson University. Louisa is working towards a dual degree in engineering and management, and is in the process of patenting a wind turbine she invented that’s inspired by nature. Oh, and she’s the newly minted CEO of Undula Tech, a company she founded to help bring her wind turbine to life.

Keep reading for Louisa’s thoughts on staying curious, synesthesia, and why failure isn’t what you think it is.

EF Journal:

You champion the importance of making unlikely connections in learning and in life. How do you stay curious and keep yourself open to making these types of connections?

Louisa Ulrich-Verderber:

The day I thought of the wind turbine idea, I was in AP Biology doodling in a notebook. I had recently watched a nature documentary, and it just popped into my head. It’s almost an artistic process where you don’t know when the next piece of inspiration will come. You just have to let it hit you, and something will connect, and you’ll have a little light bulb moment.

I think it takes open-mindedness and a little bit of discipline to never discount a piece of information, because you never know how it’s going to be useful.

You’ve written and spoken about your condition, synesthesia, extensively. How did you get used to sharing your perspective knowing it might be different than other people’s?

People just thought it was an odd quirk about me that I would say, “I like the way this song looks” or, “I prefer Lady Gaga to Maroon 5 because her songs look better.” I can imagine it being strange to someone who doesn’t have it, that a violin is orange. A violin is orange, by the way.

I find it a small but enriching part of my life where I don’t get to just listen to Mozart, I also get to see a live show when I listen to Mozart. I think it makes me look deeper into something we might take for granted. I look at people’s perspectives differently.

Someone else may see the world completely different than I see it, not just in a physical sense—where they have synesthesia—but from a sense of life experience and their own perspective that might be completely different than my own. I have to respect and accept that. Also, I think synesthesia is fun. I get to have extra senses. It’s like a little superpower.


\ ˌsi-nəs-ˈthē-zh(ē-)ə \

The neurological phenomenon that pairs two or more senses in 4% of people. Because the normal pathways of the five senses are intertwined, a synesthete might not just hear your voice—they may also see it, taste it, or feel it.

What guidance would you give educators looking to foster an environment that celebrates innovation and experimentation?

For an educator, it’s important to be a floating mentor. It’s a mix of standing back and then stepping forward when you know you can intervene and really improve what your student is doing. A nudge here, a word of encouragement there, some tough love here, but also stepping back and letting them shine. It may seem odd, but I think it can really give that student a lot of pride in their work, and also make them feel like you respect and trust them with a lot of responsibility.

How did you get comfortable with failing on your path to finding solutions?

My art gave me a really good foundation for that. It was a time in my life where I could fail and experiment and learn and not have to feel ashamed of failing. I learned that life is full of happy accidents. If I messed up a sculpture, I would say, “Okay, it’s a happy accident. What can I turn this lump of metal into now?”

In one of the [Harry Potter] books, there’s a line, “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” The fear of the word failure breeds this deep fear of the idea of failure. I don’t think we should be afraid of it at all. We should think of it as an opportunity or a mistake or just a stumbling block that lets you run a little faster, and go a little farther, and be a little stronger the next time you try and do something.


We had this conversation with Louisa while she was in the midst of packing for a trip to Slovenia, so we had to ask…

Tell us what travel means to you.

Whenever I meet people, whenever I travel, whenever I land in a new city, it’s just another experience and another universe for me to learn about and to learn from. You learn how little you know when you travel, but you also learn how competent you are in taking care of yourself, in being independent, in navigating the differences in life.

Learning how little you know can seem scary at first. But after, you realize how much you have left to learn and how much there is to drink in, to see, and to feel.

Something I learned is that everywhere in the world, we’re all the same. We all want the same thing at the end of the day. We all want love, and peace and quiet, and good food and a warm bed. The only thing that’s different between culture to culture and place to place is the details. Travel, to me, is learning how to navigate those details.

Learn about our Global Citizen community

Louisa became an EF Global Citizen back in 2015. Discover more about the 2018 program here, and keep that page bookmarked for future use—we’ll begin accepting applications for our 2019 Global Citizen Scholarships later this year.


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