Deena Elrefai ’22 found the through lines among a multitude of interests to make the most of her Elon experience.
Deena Elrefai ’22 epitomizes the quintessential engaged Elon student. Double majoring in public health studies and international and global studies with a minor in Spanish, Elrefai’s résumé is lengthy and far-reaching. From participating in the First- Year Summer Experience program the summer before her first semester to presenting research in the professional track of the American Public Health Association conference in the fall of senior year, her journey traverses all five of Elon’s Experiential Learning Requirements, and then some.
“I have been floored by just how much I’ve managed to get out of this experience,” Elrefai says. “I feel like I’ve taken advantage of everything and participated in so much, and I was so surprised about how much Elon offered me.”
How is it possible to pursue so many commitments and interests in a healthy, beneficial way? For Elrefai, it’s all about intentionality and building authentic relationships.
Senior Lecturer in Public Health Studies Amanda Tapler has served as a teacher and mentor to Elrefai since her first year. She has watched Elrefai build upon steppingstone experiences and strategically pursue involvements.
“[Deena] has thought about the opportunities that have been put before her,” Tapler says. “She’s thought about how these experiences may overlap or enhance or deepen her academic but also personal and potentially her professional life.”
It’s that thoughtful approach that allowed Elrefai to identify through lines between her varied interests. One of her main campus involvements is working with Experiential Learning and Outdoor Adventures (ELOA), specifically the Elon Challenge. As she progressed in her public health coursework, conducted research in community health and engaged in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) trainings, Elrefai recognized the opportunity to improve the program. She adapted frameworks learned in her academic work to develop a facilitation guide that helps Elon Challenge groups explore antiracism and discuss DEI topics.
I’m not graduating as someone who has a concrete opinion of how things are, but rather as someone who has the tools and skills to see questions, ask questions and be comfortable not knowing answers until I am able to explore things more.
When the facilitation guide needed a trial run, Elrefai further connected her different interests. Elon’s Health Equity and Racism (H.E.R.) Lab allows student researchers to analyze the roles of race and racism as contributors to racial health inequities. Through her involvement with the lab, Elrefai knew the group wanted to do a bonding exercise. She suggested they serve as a test group for the antiracism and DEI experience she created for the Elon Challenge and provide feedback.
Elrefai’s ability to creatively combine interests maximizes her time and creates deeper involvements. Her mentors have taken note of her forward-thinking. Evan Small, assistant director of Campus Recreation and Wellness for Experiential Learning and Outdoor Adventures, met Elrefai through the Adventures in Leadership program in the summer before her first semester. He has since supervised her in several of her roles in ELOA. “She thinks interdisciplinarily and transdisciplinarily,” Small says. “It’s not just ‘let me put my head down and do public health things.’ [Deena] has such a great grasp of all the facets of her life and how they integrate and knit and weave together.”
While connections between public health and experiential learning may not seem obvious, Elrefai’s willingness to ask questions and investigate revealed multiple points of overlap. This spring, Elrefai and Small’s working relationship shifted to an academic one because of this. The two are collaborating on research based on applying public health models to experiential education.
Openness Breeds Opportunity
Associate Professor of Public Health Studies Stephanie Baker is Elrefai’s faculty mentor for her Lumen Prize research on reproductive health among Latina/Latinx women in Alamance County. Elrefai also took Baker’s Introduction to Public Health course early in her Elon career, so Baker has had a front-row view of Elrefai’s trajectory as a student.
Baker recalls an early conversation with Elrefai regarding the value of learning outside a letter grade. “I think it was a moment of pause for her,” Baker says. “She started to see, ‘you know I have to kind of reteach my brain to appreciate the learning even if it may or may not be represented by a grade I wanted to get.’”
Those redefining moments continued throughout her education. Baker explains Elrefai learned a lot about being patient and changing course to complete her research project, even when things may not have gone as planned. “I think Deena really takes advantage of opportunities to learn,” she says. It is that willingness to continuously learn and adapt that has set her up for success.
Another key to her success: embracing uncertainty. Elrefai entered Elon thinking she knew what she wanted to do. Her first two years at Elon were characterized by realizing just how much she didn’t know. The next two have been spent learning the importance of not shutting yourself off to options and accepting that it is OK to have your mind changed.
“Every time I learn something new, it gives me 10 more questions,” Elrefai says. “I’m OK with living in a little bit of uncertainty for a while as I learn that things are not black and white, things are not concrete, every issue has a thousand sides and deserves to be explored from the perspective of those experiencing it. I’m not graduating as someone who has a concrete opinion of how things are, but rather as someone who has the tools and skills to see questions, ask questions and be comfortable not knowing answers until I am able to explore things more.”
Whether discussing her leadership roles around campus, Fulbright semi-finalist status or work as a Periclean Scholar, Elrefai is modest about her achievements. She is quick to credit the relationships that have guided her Elon journey. She is especially grateful to the many faculty members who have challenged, empowered and motivated her as both a student and a person.
She’s dubbed Elon a “self-fulfilling culture” where professors really care about their students, who see that and feel empowered to explore. Elrefai praises Baker’s, Small’s and Tapler’s self-directed approaches to teaching and mentoring. “Baker has been such an amazing mentor because she challenges me unlike I have ever been challenged in my life,” she says.
Tapler encourages students to “explore issues and figure out what they mean for us and allows us to change those definitions over time,” Elrefai says. That freedom establishes a “joint learning experience where we’re learning together which is really, really cool.” Similarly, Small has empowered Elrefai to ask questions and take control of projects, in both work and research. “[Evan] has let me have so much freedom but guided me so effectively and given me room to make mistakes.”
The relationships Elrefai has built with faculty members reflect her focus on building authentic connections in all aspects of her academic, social and professional lives.
“[Deena] is very much a relational person,” Small says. “Her deep, sustained involvements center on what she’s doing but also who she’s doing it with.” Tapler also appreciates Elrefai’s ability to carefully consider the value of each of her experiences and how they might benefit her community. It’s not just about her journey, but rather “Deena’s journey with.”
Regardless of where that journey takes her next — teaching English in Uruguay, working in a public health position in Colombia or starting a master’s program in global health are just a few options she’s currently pursuing — Elrefai’s thirst for knowledge, intentionality and authentic relationships will guide her way.
“[Deena’s] a lifelong learner,” Tapler says. “I’ve definitely seen that in terms of her excitement over intellectual curiosity and her interest in so many different things and different perspectives. She’s probably one of the perfect students for Elon, thinking about that interdisciplinary component and being a liberal arts and sciences institution. That has afforded her the opportunity to take advantage of all Elon has to offer.”