A call to personal and global transformation

Office of the Provost
Lizzie Brannon

King George County, Virginia is known for a few things. It’s the place where two cultures – the English under explorer John Smith and Native American people united by Powhatan – first met and began trading. It’s the birthplace of three of the first five American presidents, and a peninsula popular with tourists who want to sample grassy beaches, country wineries, and historic villages.

Tucked away along the county’s piece of the Potomac River shoreline is a naval base where nearly 100,000 defense employees dedicate themselves to researching and developing high-tech military systems. You can basically throw a stone in King George and hit a naval engineer.

Except for college, JMU’s Madison Honors Council president and Dingledine Scholar Lizzie Brannon has lived in King George her whole life. “The towns are pretty small, and there’s only one high school,” she says. “The last time people got really excited was when Hurricane Isabel rolled through” in 2003 after forming in the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the coast of northwestern Africa. Lizzie’s mother is from South Carolina, and her dad is from West Virginia. Both work on the naval base, and it’s also where they originally met each other. “My mom is very dedicated to the things she does,” Lizzie says. “I always wanted to quit things, but she never let me give up without making a positive change to something else. So change is okay in my life, as long as I do something that makes a difference.” She describes her dad as a “woodsy guy” who enjoys running. He’s also one of the local engineers.

The epitome of living the good life in King George tends to involve following in the steps of family members and making a career as an engineer on base. But Lizzie found herself scanning over the horizon to define her priorities and goals for life. "I went on a trip after my junior year (of high school) with my French class. Paris, Provence, and Barcelona – I’d never been out of the country before. I caught the bug."

“At JMU I’m an International Affairs major. I love traveling and meeting people who think about the world in different ways. Initially I had this idea that if I left the country I’d be a deeper person politically and culturally. And I suppose that’s true. But it turns out there’s so much abstract and theoretical knowledge that can be mastered too. I had no idea, but there’s a significant amount of math and statistics behind it too.”

With JMU political science professor Melinda Adams and history professor David Owusu-Ansah she traveled in the summer after her freshman year to Ghana, where she worked with SNV Ghana, a non-profit, international development organization. SNV fights poverty in countries throughout the world by increasing access to basic services and working to establish new job opportunities and entrée to global markets by local people.

“Melinda Adams and another honors student Hannah Pellegrino pulled me in and really inspired me. SNV had people working in Accra from all over the world. From that experience, Africana Studies is now one of my concentrations at JMU.” Lizzie has expanded her understanding of the world and global citizenship through university courses and other travel opportunities. “One of my favorite courses was post-conflict societies with John Hulsey,” another political science professor. The summer after her sophomore year she traveled to Hiroshima, Japan, with the International Network of Universities Student Seminar in Global Citizenship and Peace with funding from the Honors College.

At first, she admits, “Japan was totally unfamiliar to me. I couldn’t read anything, and I got lost a lot. But then I became friends with people from all over the world, and learned they weren’t so different from me.” Lizzie attended the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony at the site where the first atomic bomb was dropped in World War II. And she participated in Gender and Peace workshops, learning how women are adversely affected by conflict. On the last day in Japan Lizzie engaged in a mock United Nations simulation where she negotiated amendments.

“Lizzie’s sense of exploration has never waned,” explains her mentor Dr. Adams. “It’s common to say that students will go on to do great things; Lizzie is already doing great things.”

Now in her senior year, Lizzie is the president of Madison Honors, the organization representing over 900 honors students on the JMU campus, and is deeply involved in her Dingledine Scholar community. “Now that I’m a senior, it is apparent how much progress we’ve seen in the JMU Honors student body. Freshmen in the Honors College really want to be involved, and now they know how to get involved.” Conversely, the students have adopted her contagious courage and vision for personal and professional transformation. “I didn’t know people like her existed,” says fellow JMU student Meaghan Doherty. “She’s so amazing. She inspires me to do better.”

Lizzie now talks about wanting someday to be a political science professor and an honors administrator. She has already attended and given talks at several academic conferences across the country. She is the founder of MADtalks, a regular speaker series in the Honors College. In her junior year, she did intensive primary research in Malta with Hannah Pellegrino, now a collaborator, and spent a number of days interacting with graduate psychology professor Debbie Sturm, there simultaneously and leading JMU students on a Psychology of Sustainability Honors Study Abroad. Most recently, Lizzie won admission to the University of North Texas/National Science Foundation Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates in Civil Conflict Management & Peace Science.

Today Lizzie is hard at work on her honors capstone project, which involves a comparative study of refugee organizations based on field work in Malta and Harrisonburg. She wants to know how organizations determine what refugees’ needs are and how they meet those needs, and the extent to which those needs are affected by individual trauma.

She also continues to follow pathways that crest far from home. Like her dad, Lizzie has become a runners’ advocate. “I run because I just love it,” she says. “I did the Kinesiology 100 section of JMU’s general education curriculum that was focused on preparing students for well-being and lifetime fitness. But the particular focus of the class was training for marathoning.  At the end of the course I did the Rehoboth Beach Seashore Marathon in Delaware, all 26.2 miles.” From JMU’s Coach Bill Walton she learned how important the training was, and why it was necessary to be diligent and prepared. “I really enjoyed the race. My mom took a picture at Mile 18 and I’m just smiling. I’m not very competitive by nature, so completing a marathon was a perfect goal for me.”

“I hope I’ll run more marathons.” She adds, “Some of the races will be academic and scholarly. And some will be challenging to me in a totally different way.”

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Published: Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Last Updated: Friday, March 8, 2024

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