The Odyssey Scholarship Program offers opportunities for students like Jewel Tillman ’21 to become leaders on campus and after graduation. Growing the number of scholarships to produce graduates the world needs is the top priority of the Elon LEADS campaign.
Marcus Elliott remembers the day Jewel Tillman ’21 made her first visit to Elon. Tillman was a high school senior trying to decide which college might be the best fit and was keeping her options open. It was late in the recruitment process and Elon wasn’t in her top three choices at the time.
Tillman had been selected to receive the Leon and Lorraine Watson North Carolina Scholarship in Elon’s nationally recognized Odyssey Program, which made her decision even tougher. Odyssey Program scholarships are awarded to high-achieving students with significant financial need.
“We really didn’t know if we were going to be able to get her,” Elliott, now director of the Odyssey Program, recalled. “We wanted her on campus, but we weren’t the only ones who wanted her. She had a lot of other suitors.”
On her visit to Elon, Tillman, of High Point, North Carolina, met with Elliott and then-Odyssey Program Director Esther Freeman. She took a tour of campus with a student in the Odyssey Program and then had lunch with Elliott and Freeman at The Root, a popular eatery adjacent to campus.
“I felt loved,” Tillman said. “That is ultimately why I came to Elon, that and the idea of studying abroad. I knew Elon had a high percentage of students who study abroad, which made it a better choice for me than some of the other schools. And not only is the Odyssey Program offered, but also the community within the program is part of it. Students are mentored throughout by other scholars with the same background as me. The Odyssey Program showed me I had people I could confide in and trust.”
Elliott was thrilled with her decision.
“We really wanted her here because we felt the campus needed someone like Jewel on it. There were great mutual benefits for both her and the greater Elon community,” Elliott said. “I’m not a fortune teller, but I just knew that if she came to this campus with the qualities we saw on paper, throughout the interview process and when we met her, then she was going to change this campus for the better.”
Over the next four years, Tillman’s work as a scholar, mentor and leader made Elliott’s prediction come true.
A Voice of Reason
A sense of community and the Odyssey Program attracted Tillman to Elon. Community also defined her time on campus as an advocate for students, as a mentor and a powerful voice for social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion, said Randy Williams, vice president and provost for inclusive excellence and associate professor of education.
“I think that Jewel, and that’s a perfect name because she has been a jewel for us, impacted Elon on multiple levels — in her peer group in Odyssey and beyond her Odyssey group and in the Black community. She was a leader among students because she was able to articulate their interests to those who need to hear it, administrators and faculty members,” Williams said. “She was a broker between students and faculty.”
“She has been able to challenge the way we critically think about how we go about each and every day,” Elliott said. “She was a student who respectfully challenged the way we think about the status quo.”
A first-generation college student, Tillman graduated in May with a degree in political science and minors in African & African-American studies and international global studies. Community engagement and service are deeply rooted through family and school experiences.
“I remember as a young child, my family was very involved in our community. They weren’t politicians, but they were well respected because they were always helping people in the community whether it was a clothing drive or prom dress giveaways,” Tillman said. “I remember how they have made such a large impact with the resources that they have. That fed into what I learned throughout middle school and high school.”
In middle school, Tillman’s focus was sharpened by an annual program of racial equity workshops offered by the Piedmont Triad chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice. Through the workshops, she learned about equity, bias and systemic racism.
“Up to then, I had never heard those words. It was amazing to me,” Tillman said. “Service and equity work have been ingrained in me since childhood.”
Her social justice interests on campus included a role as president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., a group dedicated to public service primarily in the Black community and developing its members as leaders. She served on the Elon History and Memory committee, which was formed by President Connie Ledoux Book in 2018 to examine Elon’s institutional history in a transparent, participatory and intellectually rigorous manner. Tillman joined panel discussions regarding the racial climate on campus and worked with campus leaders to improve policies and practices.
Williams said Tillman’s maturity, determination and leadership qualities stood out as key strengths in influencing changes on campus.
“She is assertive and clear but not abrasive, increasing listeners’ willingness to engage and consider her points. That makes her stand out quite a bit,” Williams said. “Jewel’s being able to speak with respect but also be clear in her stance made our interactions pleasurable, especially when we talked about serious topics that are important to students.”
Elliott called Tillman unflappable under pressure.
“In every space she occupied, she was the voice of reason,” Elliott said. “She demonstrated her commitment not only to her peers but also the faculty and staff mentors she gained along the way. She influenced them to be more critical in the way we move, think and traverse the campus culture and climate.”
An Emerging Mentor
Odyssey is a cohort-based program that fosters mentoring and success while creating a family atmosphere. While meeting a student’s full financial need, the scholarships also include a stipend for books and supplies, and a one-time $4,000 global study grant to be used for an approved study abroad or Study USA program. The program is based in Elon’s Center for Access and Success.
Tillman’s growth as a leader on campus began with interaction with her Odyssey cohort during Odyssey Week, the period before all students arrive on campus, when first-year Odyssey students come together for several days of activities, workshops and interaction with older Odyssey student mentors. It’s a way of introducing college life to the new students and a glimpse of what they can expect while building friendships and community within the program.
“You come in with a whole bunch of strangers. But by the end of the week, we were sitting in a circle talking about our experiences and our lives.” Tillman said. “I met my best friend in the Odyssey Program, and we haven’t been separated since Odyssey Week. When I think of the Odyssey Program the first thing I think of is family.”
Tillman quickly became a leader within the Odyssey Program and in other areas of campus. As a first-year student she connected with SMART — Student Mentors Advising Rising Talent, a peer-mentoring program offered through Elon’s Center for Race, Ethnicity & Diversity Education. She ultimately became a mentor in the organization, which offers support to students of color.
She’s inspirational. She has qualities that her peers seek to mimic and add into their toolbelt.
— Odyssey Program Director Marcus Elliot
about Jewel Tillman ’21
She also served as a mentor on the College Access Team (CAT), a group of students who guide and tutor students in Elon Academy, a Center for Access and Success program that gives high-achieving local high school students with no prior exposure to higher education access to the university and provides a foundation for them to one day attend a college or university.
“Everything that I’ve aligned myself with has been focused on giving back to my community, especially the CAT mentoring. They are first-generation students or who identify as a minority,” Tillman said. “It makes me happy that they had me as a resource to guide them when it comes to applying for college. They have a leg up in the application process. It’s something I wish I had when I was in high school.”
Elliott called her impact on other Odyssey Program students “amazing.”
“She’s inspirational,” he said. “She has qualities that her peers seek to mimic and add into their toolbelt.”
Building a Future
Tillman planned all along to major in political science at Elon. She enjoys policy studies and learning how government systems work. She plans to attend law school in the future. A minor in international global studies was not in her original plan.
“I chose to fulfill my global studies credit through language. In high school, I took a little Spanish. When I got to Elon I wanted to challenge myself. I thought, ‘What is something I can do here that I have never done?’ So, I decided to study Arabic. That turned out to be the best thing and the most challenging thing I could have done,” Tillman said.
As part of her studies, she began a study abroad in Egypt at the start of 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world. During her short stay at the American University in Cairo, she was able to learn colloquial Arabic, which was no easy task. She helped celebrate American University’s 100th birthday and took part in a dance presentation. She was summoned home during spring break while camping in the desert.
Even though her study abroad course was cut short, it was a life-changing experience, she said.
“One of my best experiences was traveling to different parts of Egypt and meeting new people. I made a lot of friends and now have a community of people I know there. If I go back, I can even stay in their homes,” she said.
As she did at Elon, Tillman immersed herself in all that was available in Egypt. She joined the university’s Afro-dance group, met people from all walks of life and faced challenges head-on.
“I felt so at home with my dance family I ended up performing at one of the university anniversary celebrations. I was thinking, ‘Who am I, this random American girl, and now I’m on this stage performing for this anniversary.’ That was pretty cool,” Tillman said.
Williams noticed the same thing about Tillman at Elon.
“She didn’t need a role or a committee to be a leader and we benefited from that,” Williams said.
Her impact on campus at Elon did not go unnoticed. Tillman received the Wilhelmina Boyd African and African American Studies at Elon Award, honoring a graduating senior for academic achievement as well as demonstrating a commitment to African & African American Studies through coursework, citizenship/community engagement, scholarship, and student activities/leadership.
Before graduating, she was named Student Organization Officer of the Year by the Student Government Association for her leadership as president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, which was also honored by SGA as the organization with the highest cumulative GPA on campus in 2020-21.
A Graduate the World Needs
Tillman is spending her first year after graduation as an Elon Year of Service Graduate Fellow. She works with Impact Alamance, a nonprofit foundation devoted to improving the health and well-being of Alamance County residents. Tillman is working on policy initiatives and leading training sessions on racial equity. After that, she plans to attend law school and pursue a career potentially in human rights law or international law, wherever she can make a difference.
Tillman credits the Odyssey Scholarship program for bringing her to Elon, providing a supportive community and offering access to academic, leadership and social opportunities that will help shape her future. Increasing funding for Odyssey Program scholarships and other scholarships is the top priority of the Elon LEADS Campaign, with a mission to produce graduates the world needs. Tillman is a good example of what an Odyssey Scholarship means.
“Being an Odyssey Scholar afforded me so many opportunities for my future. I didn’t have to think about how I could afford college or stress my parents out about affording college. I didn’t have to worry about being in debt. That peace of mind helped my mental health as well,” Tillman said. “Odyssey has equipped us with the tools to succeed in college and succeed after college.”
Williams and Elliott said Tillman will make an impact in her career just as she did at Elon. Williams noted her interest in addressing policy and social justice issues as a possible career path.
“That’s an awesome combination. To bring about real change, we need to get into the policy world and get at those policies that have existed for some time and see where the inequities are and what can be done,” Williams said. “Her interest in those two worlds is a really healthy combination for bringing about the changes we need in social justice work.”
“That’s in her DNA,” Elliott said. “I know her path will put her in a position to be at the table and have conversations with other influencers for affecting change in policy. Wherever she does land that organization or agency is getting a jewel, pun intended.”
About the Elon LEADS Campaign
With a $250 million goal, Elon LEADS is the largest campaign in the university’s history and will support four main funding priorities: scholarships for graduates the world needs, increased access to engaged learning opportunities such as study abroad, research and internships, support for faculty and staff mentors who matter and Elon’s iconic campus. As of June 14, donors have contributed $213 million toward the goal.
Every gift to the university—including annual, endowment, capital, estate and other planned gifts—for any designation counts as a gift to the campaign, which will support students and strengthen Elon for generations to come. To learn more about how you can make an impact, visit www.elonleads.com.