By Brooks Dareff
Responsibility, leadership and seemingly unbounded energy must go with the territory when you’re the oldest of six children helping a mom who is a single parent. How else to explain the many achievements of Elaine Townsend, a Covenant Scholar who, she says, “had to Google my way to college”?
Even the road to a search engine was circuitous for Elaine, who was born in Lima, Peru, to a mother from the mountains “with Inca roots – the whole enchilada” and a father who was “a missionary kid” reared in the Peruvian jungle. The family moved to tiny Fitzgerald, Ga., when Elaine was 2, and then when she was 10 to equally cozy Waxhaw, N.C., in Union County, about 40 minutes from Charlotte.
Now a Carolina graduate who will teach English in South Korea this next year through a prestigious Fulbright award, Elaine – like so many Covenant Scholars – was the first person in her family to attend college. And her mother, who had been laid off from her job, was the next, taking that “opportunity to go back to school” and improve her own prospects: She now teaches Spanish at Harding University High School in Charlotte. Next came two sisters: Priscilla, a rising junior, and Christina, who starts in August as a freshman. Both are Covenant Scholars. Three sisters, three Covenant Scholars.
Pioneering the family road to higher education – warily at first – was Elaine, who attended a small Christian academy outside Charlotte that offered no Advanced Placement courses or college preparation. “Not knowing anything is scary,” she says, but her mother pushed her forward despite her apprehensions.
“She’s amazing,” Elaine says of her mother. “She’s shaped who we are.”
Elaine’s college quest led her to a Gates Millennium Scholarship, which covers all unmet need. A Covenant award followed, which put Carolina in “a special place in my heart. It gave me the confidence that this was the school to go to.” The Covenant meant she could defer use of the Gates Scholarship, which pays for up to 10 years of education, until graduate school. And it provided the support she needed while getting started at Carolina.
“It really helped me with the assimilation process. It was very difficult for me adjusting, even just finding my way around,” she says. “The mentor process and skills workshops really helped me.”
Once established and on her own footing, Elaine set about helping high school students of circumstances similar to hers get the assistance she didn’t have, through the Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI), giving those students the confidence they needed to pursue college. “It’s about overcoming your fear,” she says. “You’re often your own obstacle.”
Following her mother’s lead, Elaine is pursuing a career in education. A middle grades education major, she plans to continue teaching after her year in South Korea, and then pursue global education as a graduate student.
Elaine’s accomplishments and activities while at Carolina are impressive. For example:
- As co-director this past year of SLI, a mentoring organization that pairs Carolina students with Latino/Latina high school students from low-resource schools and provides college prep seminars taught by UNC professors, Elaine managed 140 UNC students, 70 of whom are now working as mentors in five high schools in Siler City, Chapel Hill, Asheboro and Lee County. “That taught me so much about who I am as a leader,” she says, “and about shaping my career in education.&rd
- Elaine was a senior intern with the Carolina Latino/Latina Collaborative, which is within the university’s Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affai
- She graduated as a Walter White Buckley Jr. Public Service Scholar, which honors students’ commitment to service, and their work to foster connections between Carolina and the community and in developing fellow students’ capacity for engaging in serv
- For two years she led middle grades education majors as president of the Collegiate Middle Levels Associat
- In her last semester she taught full-time at Culbreth Middle School: “It was awesome – a great experience.&rd
- She started Project B.L.U.E. (Books & Literacy United for Education), which is building a children’s library in Pochocuape, Nicaragua. The project was inspired by two college summers Elaine spent working in the “amazing” mountain village, so isolated that “the address is really 200 meters past the blue water tank.”
There was little doubt upon entering Carolina that Elaine had the extraordinary ability required of a Covenant Scholar. Elected her high school’s class president as a senior, she spent a week on a mission trip to Nicaragua with her peers distributing food to children – “the exposure was sort of life-changing.” And for two summers she taught to a group of Korean children visiting Charlotte. “That’s when I got interested in education,” she says. Now Elaine is going to South Korea herself – honoring a pledge she made to those students in Charlotte that she would go to their country one day – and continuing the symmetry that seems to define the trajectory of her education as a student and a human being.
“Everything I’ve done sort of ties together,” Elaine says. “Everything happens for a reason. That is what I really believe.”