Pheriby Bryan ‘25 transforms undergraduate research into art

Bryan's project, inspired by the passing of young peers, combines meticulous research with an inspiring dance performance.

Pheriby Bryan ’25 practicing at dance studio.

Inspiration can truly strike anywhere. For Pheriby Bryan ‘25, three waves of inspiration that struck throughout the fall and winter of 2021 changed her college experience and dance career trajectory.

As a dance performance and choreography major, in the fall of 2021, Bryan was presented with the opportunity to apply for the Rhodes Grant. This new research grant provided by an Elon faculty member would fund and assist a student’s research exploring a topic of their choice through creative expression. At first, she was not interested in applying until one day, in her dance studio, she noticed that a song was stuck in her head.

After a deep dive across the internet, Bryan realized that the song was a hymn she sang with her high school choir at a funeral for a student who unfortunately died by suicide. A few months before this, a student Bryan knew at Elon also passed away, and these deaths heavily impacted and inspired her. Thinking of her personal connection to the hymn and both students, whom she wanted to honor, she began developing not only a research topic but also an inspiring performance.

Bryan is researching how young people are impacted psychologically and physically when someone they know commits suicide, specifically in the college or high school atmosphere, and her findings will be depicted in a performance.

Bryan began her proposal for the grant and was moved on to the second round of applications when her third piece of inspiration hit — a vulnerable journal series about a teenager’s mental health struggles and journey. The author is not any teenager, but William Burleson, a peer of Bryan’s from high school. After reading Burleson’s journal, “semi-colon,” Bryan realized the potential impact her piece could have and made it her mission to continue the conversations he began.

“I feel like this piece I’m creating is an extension of his work, and what his work showed me is that the more people talk about mental health, the more lives are saved,” Bryan said.

Bryan at SPARKS office
Bryan at SPARKS office.

This past fall, Bryan worked closely with her mentor, Associate Professor Jen Guy Metcalf, and began her official undergraduate research. One of the main steps in Bryan’s research process is reaching out to connections in various fields, such as therapists, dancers, Elon faculty members, and even student employees. This September, Bryan began working for Campus Recreation & Wellness as a SPARKS Peer Educator in the mental fitness focus group.

Although she began her research before joining the SPARKS team, Bryan said that she has been able to take what she’s learned through her on-campus job and apply it to her project. She said her main takeaway from SPARKS is the language she uses to create an inclusive, comfortable, and respectful environment with those involved with her project and the community. Bryan says that working with SPARKS, particularly about mental fitness, has inspired her to put her own needs first, such as food-prepping for a long day ahead.

“It has been powerful to see Pheriby thrive as she incorporates her passion for mental well-being into her study of dance and then creates a research focus. She is living out the mission of our department ‘holistic well-being for students, faculty, and staff.’ There’s nothing more engaging than solutions created for students by students,” said Charlotte Williams, associate director for Campus Recreation & Wellness

Pheriby Bryan Dance Photo
Bryan dance portrait.

With Burleson’s permission, Bryan decided that the title of her final project would also be “Semicolon,” a grammatical symbol representing an author’s decision to continue a sentence rather than end it.

Although a seasoned dancer, Bryan is primarily serving as the choreographer for the piece, as well as the research behind it. Eight dancers will tell the stories that Bryan has learned throughout her research, continuing to save lives through artistic expression while memorializing those we have lost.