In this series, Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences is shining the spotlight on distinguished members of the Class of 2021 from a wide array of disciplines.
A Leadership Fellow and Multifaith Scholar, Sarah Jane “SJ” McDonald ’21 wanted to learn more about Africa, its people and cultures, and its nations’ global relations. She followed that interest to majors in Religious Studies and International and Global Studies. Her passionate approach to these studies earned accolades from faculty across departments and programs.
“SJ McDonald served as one of the most active and effective student leaders ever to take the reins of Students for Peace and Social Justice,” said Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies L.D. Russell. “She left the organization much stronger, broader, and deeper than it was when she came on board. Her undergraduate research in religious studies, drawing on her peace and conflict studies course work, rooted in her interests in social justice initiatives in Tanzania, and concentrated on the plight of international refugees here in North Carolina, was clearly argued and urgently relevant. In a time when traditional forms of religion and Christianity in particular are becoming less relevant in Western culture, SJ embodies the very best of the Christian tradition: a passion for social justice, compassionate intervention on behalf of those less fortunate, and a joy in living so genuine that it spreads to those fortunate enough to spend time in her presence.”
McDonald is a member of Theta Alpha Kappa, recipient of Omicron Delta Kappa’s Ella Brunk Smith Award, the Anne Cassebaum Outstanding Student Award for Commitment to Social Justice and Activism in the Peace and Conflict Studies program, and served as president and vice president of Students for Peace and Social Justice. Recently, she was awarded a U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship to study Swahili as she pursues a career in humanitarian aid working with East African refugees.
Tell us about your research experience.
I researched East and Central African refugee integration into Greensboro, N.C., and the role of religious community in the integration process. I selected this because I wanted to combine my study abroad experience in Iringa, Tanzania, with my academic studies and learn more about refugee communities, something I have been passionate about through visits to the US-Mexico border and internships involving refugee resettlement. I presented at the American Academy of Religion’s Southeastern conference, National Conferences for Undergraduate Research and Elon’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum.
What are you proudest of when you reflect on your time at Elon?
I am most proud of my research experiences and how I have grown as a person, scholar and advocate. Through the Multifaith Scholar program, I have reached an advanced Swahili speaking level and have formed an important connection with a refugee church in Greensboro that has taught me so much. I will use what I have learned through Multifaith Scholars for the rest of my career in refugee and migrant advocacy.
I am also incredibly proud of my Common Good project with Leadership Fellows where I studied Elon’s archives and presented on Elon’s history of protest and considered how we remember the past and the impact of protesting on the future.
Were there professors who had a significant influence on you?
I have been incredibly lucky to be supported by multiple mentors through my time at Elon. Whether it was my first-semester global instructor Mark Dalhouse (director for global educational initiatives), who made an effort to keep in touch and support my studies, L.D. Russell (senior lecturer in religious studies) who advised Students for Peace and Social Justice and has supported me through all four years at Elon, or my mentors and bosses at the Truitt Center who have endlessly loved me, taught me about engagement with difference, and been a home for me.
I feel so lucky to know and have learned from each member of the Department of Religious Studies in and outside of the classroom as mentors and friends. I especially want to express my gratitude to Dr. Mussa Idris (associate professor of anthropology), my research mentor and Dr. Amy Allocco, (associate professor of religious studies and director of the Multifaith Scholars). Finally, I want to thank Melanie Bullock, Alonzo Cee, and the entire Center for Leadership team for supporting my leadership journey.
I have learned that Elon prioritizes relationships and I cannot express how grateful I am to each and every person who has impacted my journey here. Above are just a few people who have shaped my journey and loved me throughout it, but I could go on and on about all of the people who have made Elon home for me.
What are your plans after graduation?
I will be participating in the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship program for Swahili this summer, then moving to Baltimore, Maryland, to work for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service as a part of the outreach team. I’m incredibly excited to begin a career in migration and cannot wait to learn more with LIRS.
What advice would you give future Elon students?
I would encourage students to prioritize relationships and spend time getting to know faculty, staff, and other peers as they are what makes Elon so great. Take advantage of all of the wonderful opportunities that Elon has to offer — whether it is a cohorted experience, a club, an event, or meeting with a mentor. Elon is what you make it!
What’s your favorite Elon tradition?
My favorite Elon tradition has to be the annual Sand Mandala creation and destruction by Tibetan Buddhist monks in the Truitt Center. My first year I met Geshe Sangpo at lunch and created a friendship that lasts to this day! It is a beautiful demonstration of faith and I love that participants get to take home a piece of the auspicious sand to display.