Meet the valedictorian: Elizabeth Elia

JMU News

SUMMARY: An Honors College student in the Independent Scholars Program, Class of 2020 valedictorian Elizabeth Elia has been an active member of the JMU community, serving as a leader in the Alternative Break Program, a teaching assistant and a Valley Scholars mentor.

By Amanda Christian

What led you to JMU?

I’m from King George, Virginia, a really small town. I didn’t think a lot about privilege growing up. Both of my parents grew up lower-to-middle class and they embodied the “American Dream.” I started to realize in high school that other students didn’t have the same access to services that I had, and because I lived in a small town, I didn’t have access to some things other people had access to. King George High School students didn’t have civic engagement activities, places for thoughtful community engagement or even too many places for people to go.

My parents encouraged me to apply to in-state schools and I really didn’t want to like JMU, but then I really did. I did a tour, attended CHOICES and interviewed for the Dingledine Scholarship (which I didn’t get). I saw myself continuing as an introvert if I went to other schools, and I could try new things and get out of my comfort zone if I came to JMU.

Tell us about your Madison Experience.

I have been involved in Delta Gamma and the Alternative Break Program since my freshman year. I went on my first ASB, working with Lifespan in Charlotte, North Carolina. I served as a program intern with (Harrisonburg’s) Explore More Discovery Museum in the spring of 2017 and was inducted into Phi Sigma Tau, the philosophy honors society. I spent fall of my sophomore year serving as a coordinator for Overcoming Barriers. I also got the opportunity to lead my first Alternative Spring Break in 2018 to East Coast Migrant Head Start in Florida.

My junior year, I was a First YeaR Orientation Guide, led my second ASB to Joshua Tree National Park, got involved in Cru [a faith-based Christian organization] and served in two teaching assistant positions with the Honors College. I also began working part time with Community Service-Learning as a service-learning coordinator. Last summer, I served as a missionary in North Africa, and I was able to serve as a small-group leader on an Alternative New Dukes Break working with Fuller Center Disaster Rebuilders. I also served as a Valley Scholars mentor for a year and a half. This past spring break, I went on my last ASB to Dismas House in South Bend, Indiana. 

How have you handled the transition to online learning this semester? 

Online learning is so hard. I learned how much I rely on my routine, my friends and university resources. Now, all I have is a MacBook Air. I really want to do my best and that’s really, really hard during a pandemic. I try to schedule time each day with my quarantine buddy (my boyfriend). I’m also taking KIN 100 and we’re required to do exercise, so I’m getting a decent amount of exercise, which has been really good for me.

Elizabeth Elia (‘20) poses in front of Hillcrest House, home of the Honors College. 

What has the Independent Scholars Program looked like for you?

I was a SMAD major first, and then I was going to declare political science. In the 2016 election, I lost a lot of faith in democracy. I wanted to learn how to better persuade and inform people. I still had a billion different interests and then stumbled across the Independent Scholars program.

My major is social justice through education policy. I am exploring how social inequalities are remedied and made worse by the education system and what potential opportunities there are to address social justice through schools. I have taken courses in education, political science, sociology, public policy, anthropology, philosophy and justice studies. 

What were your favorite classes at JMU?

The first introductory course in Independent Scholars was the most valuable for me. I was exploring problems that were important and that needed answers. I was watching things take shape all around me—while finding the things that I wanted to study and felt most passionate about.

Also, the Language and Culture class in Anthropology with Amy Paugh. I took it a little bit as an afterthought, but I learned that linguistics informs all parts of society, and I got so much more out of it than I expected to.

As a student in the Honors College, you have to complete a culminating Capstone project. What was your project focus?

My capstone, titled Equitable Education and Newcomer Students, focuses on understanding the potential barriers to equitable education for newcomer students at the macro-policy level and micro-school level. I did a case study with Harrisonburg High School, specifically exploring mathematics education. I then used this to inform a larger understanding of social justice with regards to cultural, institutional and individual barriers to equitable education and possible solutions at the local, state and federal level. 

What are your plans after graduation?

I’m the valedictorian and unemployed, but here we are. I really want to work with a justice-based Christian organization. I’ve applied to education policy- and student affairs-type jobs. A lot of places have frozen hiring right now, but I would like to work full time at a ministry organization.

What advice would you give to the incoming Class of 2024?

Enjoy every second of your JMU experience and don’t spend the whole time thinking about the future. You only get four years, and it goes by way faster than you think it will.

JMU is a place where I have grown so much. My politics are different, my religion is different. I have new friends. I am so different from who I was four years ago, and I am so happy about that. My four years at JMU have been so humbling.

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Published: Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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