From Literature to Legislation


SUMMARY: Eleni Kavros DeGraw, 1997 English graduate, is now the state representative for the 17th District of Connecticut. English intern, Kat Mauser, interviewed Kavros DeGraw to inquire about her time at JMU.

Eleni Kavros DeGraw is the current state representative for the 17th District of Connecticut. She graduated from JMU in 1997 and majored in English with a concentration in Italian and a minor in technical writing. DeGraw is the Chairwoman of the Planning and Development Committee and serves as a member of the Public Health and Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committees, according to the Connecticut House Democrats website. She’s currently working on a bill to aid sexual assault survivors when reporting their assault. 

Q: What year did you graduate from JMU?

Kavros DeGraw: [I graduated in] 1997.


Q: What majors and minors did you graduate with?

Kavros DeGraw: English. I don’t think I ended up with a full journalism minor. I know that I almost did, but I did have a concentration in Italian and I did have a minor in technical writing.


Q: What was your favorite English class you took at JMU?

Kavros DeGraw: Any class taught by Mark Hawthorne. Mark Hawthorne was still in the English department when I was there. By the time my daughters were going to college, he had switched over to [another department].

My first class with him was technical writing, but he also taught queer theory — and keep in mind that was in like 1995, so that was kind of a big deal for a southern university to be teaching queer theory. All his classes were good. He was just an absolute genius, and I even took a Photoshop class with him. Photoshop was still really new for non-professional users, and that was a big deal.

Q: Was there anything about the JMU English program that prepared you for your career path?

Kavros DeGraw: I've always been a good writer, but I do feel like the English program at JMU helped me become a better communicator, especially in terms of taking complicated ideas and boiling them down — which I have to say, my constituents probably appreciate the most … I do think that as a direct result of the work that I did at JMU.

Q: What drew you to politics, and were there any opportunities at JMU that helped you get involved with the political scene?

Kavros DeGraw: It's funny, I was the vice president of my senior class in high school, and then when I got to JMU, I didn’t do anything related to student government. I think there were opportunities at JMU, but I was just going in a different direction at that point.

In high school, I had multiple teachers that said, "Oh, she’ll be the first woman president someday," which I laughed off over and over again. I did not see myself running for office. And then there was that 2016 election …  I wasn’t involved in that election, but I was very involved immediately after the presidential election, after Hillary Clinton lost. Then, I got involved in Connecticut. We have democratic town committees. I got very involved with that. I started running a campaign for the municipal candidates that were running that year. That was what helped me make the decision to run for state representative, because honestly, there was nobody else. I kept trying to find someone to run to challenge the person who was the incumbent who had been in office for years and years and years, and hadn't been challenged in a long time. And everybody kept saying, "it's you" and I kept saying, "it's not me" … so yeah, that's how I ended up here.

Q: What advice would you give to a current JMU student considering the same or a similar career path?

Kavros DeGraw: The interesting thing about my career path is that it was not linear … We always thought it was like ‘you graduate high school, you go to college, you get a good job.’ Eventually, you get married, you have some kids. It's a very linear path. I was rare in that I got married young and had my first daughter at 25.

Stay open and stay curious. You don't actually know how you're going to use your degree — if you're going to use your degree. It's more that it opens doors to certain jobs that maybe wouldn't be open to you otherwise.

If you had told me when I graduated college that I was going to be a state representative someday, I would have said, "that’s so funny." But, you don’t know. I think that the important thing is that opportunities may present themselves — whether it's in a job, or when you're out of a job, or when you're looking for a job — that it's not the path that you thought you were on, but maybe it's something that you find interesting. Plus, you can pay the bills, and I think that that's part of it … I do think that it's really about staying curious and it's not that you want to change who you are over and over and over again. But, you may find yourself in occupations and callings that you never imagined, because this, for me, really ended up being a calling; it was not a career choice.

Q: What is your favorite JMU English memory?

Kavros DeGraw: I hate to say it again, but my class with Mark Hawthorne because he challenged us to think in a way that was extremely plastic … I was taking the first class with him, and we were walking out of the class, and he had worn a pin that said, "Some of my best friends are straight." I knew he was gay, but there were two young women with me who clearly had never had a gay friend. I had this moment that I thought … he was someone who was expanding the narrative for LGBTQ people without even doing anything beyond existing.

I had a different upbringing, but I think that that's the beauty of college. College is there to expand your mind and to help you think about things in ways that you never thought about before. He really, truly had a gift for doing that, in all of his classes, in very different ways. Before we started talking about diverse authors nationally, he was who had us reading diverse [literature] of thought, diverse [literature of] gender, sexual orientation, race. He did us all a service in making us think much more broadly than we had when we walked in.

Q: Do you have any current projects you’re working on? Future aspirations?

Kavros DeGraw: In terms of current projects, current legislation, I'm working on a really important sexual assault victim bill that was inspired by the Netflix documentary called “Victim/Suspect,” and it's a, unfortunately, national trend of women who come forward to report their sexual assaults, and because law enforcement is either not entirely truthful because they don't have trauma informed training, and for a variety of other reasons in some cases … they accuse the women of filing false police reports — even in many cases, lying to [the women] too, and gaslighting them.

What we're looking to do is to create a model policy around sexual assault victims, so that when there is criminal intervention, when they come forward, that the police [and] law enforcement is trained to handle the situation with a trauma-informed response. So that is like my number one — that's a really important piece right now — but as my English-loving, book-loving little heart, there is another bill that I'm working on.

Each town[‘s] library purchases books and — obviously before the pandemic, but especially during the pandemic — ebooks have become so much more popular. Well, when you and I buy a copy of the latest James Patterson novel or something else … we're paying $15, $16 for that, right? Well, the libraries across the country are charged four to five to six times that cost. But it's not like a traditional book where it can live in the library potentially forever, or until it's replaced, or [until] they decide to take it out of circulation. When they buy an ebook of, say, James Patterson, only 26 people are allowed to check that out — or they have it for two years. And then it literally vanishes from the collection. So because it's electronic the license expires, after 26 years it’s gone.

We're trying to basically say that is contractually inappropriate and not acceptable, and we're going to move forward with saying that [libraries] cannot [be held] to these ridiculous contract terms. Our hope is that the publishers will come to the table with a suggestion because while it doesn't need to be that the library loans out to infinity, just 26 users seems pretty crazy.

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by Kat Mauser

Published: Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Last Updated: Thursday, April 4, 2024

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