One of a kind
By Jamie Marsh
From Fall 2010 "Madison" magazine
Ask Christa Brown ('12) what she wants to do after JMU and you'll hear a 20-year plan that ends either in Congress or the Oval Office. While your eyes may be rolling, please consider that she is well on her way to attaining her goals as she will graduate with three majors that as a unit make Brown a one-of-a-kind, exceptionally well-rounded leader.
Brown's three majors—German, political science, and theater and dance—mean most of her time is consumed with study. "I have no qualms about getting lost in my schoolwork," she declares on her MySpace page, and indeed it's what she hoped college would be like when she was at Prince George High School near Richmond.
She was also accepted at two other schools, but ultimately came to Madison for one reason: academics. Sure, she thought the campus was beautiful and the social activities plentiful, but she chose JMU "to get knowledge, to be mentored by the best professors and ultimately to get an awesome job," she says.
As a freshman, Brown declared political science as a major, but she quickly realized she wanted more. "I wouldn't say I'm typical," she says with a boisterous laugh. "It's unusual to have three majors, but my professors offer a lot of support, I'm super organized, and I never lose sight of my main objectives. I'm mostly paying for my own education, and I think that helps me to stay focused. I'm passionate and driven to achieve the goals I've set for myself." Those goals are so top-of-mind that Brown can list them in chronological order: join the U.S. Air Force, followed by law school—specializing in immigration law—a stint in Congress and then possibly serve as an ambassador to Germany. Sometimes she also tacks on the lofty goal of president.
Her political resume is already under way. After serving in student government in high school, Brown decided to major in political science with a concentration in pre-law. At JMU, she participated in "Take Your Professor to Lunch Day" and got one-on-one time with a professor who also served in the Virginia House of Delegates. "It was an amazing experience," Brown says. "I was eating lunch with him, and I remember thinking, 'yes, this is what I want to do.' This is why I came to JMU."
From then on, she joined every related program available to her including the Student Government Association and the Judicial Council —a group with authority to judge its campus peers. Brown says the Judicial Council is a particularly good fit because she is "drawn to law and order, and maintaining order."
Those skills were then strengthened during a junior-year internship with Harrisonburg Mayor Kai Degner ('03, '05M). The "mini-internship" was part of a class project helping Degner with his Harrisonburg Summit series, an Open Space Technology chain of meetings where participants create an agenda on the fly. Brown worked on the Intercultural/Interfaith Summit where several breakout sessions focused specifically on immigrant communities, a topic she plans to study further. "Christa illustrates a common experience at JMU," Degner says. "Students get out of the classroom and into the real world."
Now, Brown is gearing up for her next out-of-classroom experience: a Study Abroad program in Germany. Her primary goal is to build language skills through immersion, but she also hopes to absorb a good deal of culture as well: "I enjoy philosophy—Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu—and I want to study German philosophers like Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche." She'll also try to see as many opera houses as possible, a nod to her third major—theater and dance.
Though people often ask how theater and dance fits into her legal and political plans, Brown calls the JMU theater department her true home. "It's where I am most me, where I am allowed to relax," she says. "I'm not a party person or a socialite. Instead, I use theater to relieve my stress. It's therapeutic."
This philosophy was partially inspired by Scott Zane Smith, her favorite professor. "The relationships students have with JMU professors are amazing," Brown says. "I've been privileged to really get to know a professor who also instructs and inspires me like no other. Professor Smith expects a lot out of his students, and I push myself to meet his expectations."
Smith says all voice students must quickly learn to set priorities because they practice on the Honor System, logging their time spent, goals accomplished and personal evaluation. "Students either perform well because they have worked diligently or they do not know what they are doing," he says. "The stakes are high for Christa because of all she is committed to, but she's learned the discipline to make right choices."
As a theater and dance major, Brown is also required to work in main stage productions. She's surprised herself by choosing off-stage roles like stage management, ticketing and lighting. "I saw an opportunity to be introverted and take on an observational role. This is one of the reasons I've grown at JMU. I'm a more balanced person because of opportunities to try different things."
One lesson she didn't expect to learn off-stage: how to be a better leader. "I'm in the process of learning that leadership isn't just about being the figurehead," she says. "If you really get a grasp of the full spectrum of what's going on in a production or an organization, you can be a better leader from the background. It's leadership as service." That's a lesson she believes will take her far—maybe even to the White House.