Senior Elaine Townsend wins Fulbright, Diversity awards

Photo of Elaine Townsend

Elaine Townsend

Elaine Townsend operates like she’s on a mission.

Townsend, a senior who is majoring in middle grades education, talks rapid-fire, like she’s got a lot to do. Indeed, she’s gotten a lot done.

That work is getting recognition. Townsend has won a Fulbright award, which will send her to work teaching English for a year in South Korea. She was the undergraduate student winner of Carolina’s 2012 University Diversity Award. Additionally, in March she has been inducted into the Order of the Golden Fleece, Carolina’s oldest and highest honorary society.

Townsend says that after arriving at Carolina she found a community of passionate, involved people and wanted to join their work.

“I wanted to be part of that positive change that so many people here were committed to,” she said.

Among Townsend’s activities and accomplishments at Carolina:

  • She has served as co-director of the Scholars Latino Initiative, a mentoring organization that pairs Carolina students with Latino/a high school students from low-resource high schools. She helped develop SLI’s college prep seminar offered to SLI mentees with the purpose to prepare them for the rigors of a college classroom.
  • She will graduate as a Walter White Buckley Jr. Public Service Scholar, a recognition that celebrates students’ commitment to service, their work to foster connections between Carolina and the community and in developing fellow students’ capacity for engaging in service.
  • She served for two years as president of the Collegiate Middle Levels Association, which consists of middle grades education majors.
  • She launched an effort called Project B.L.U.E. (Books & Literacy United for Education), which is creating a children’s library in the rural mountain village of Pochocuape, Nicaragua. She saw the need for the literacy work while spending three summers working in Pochocuape.
  • She has worked as a counselor for Carolina United, which works to create a safe and inclusive environment where students from all backgrounds can share their experiences and gain new perspectives.
  • Oh, and she’s been doing her student teaching this year at Culbreth Middle School.

“I feel like a kid in a candy store,” Townsend said. “People here are so unique and interesting and very dedicated to working on things they care about. It has been great for my personal growth to work with so many committed people.”

A missionary’s zeal

Townsend’s enthusiasm perhaps comes naturally, having been born in Peru into a missionary family. Her grandfather, Cameron Townsend, was the founder of the world’s largest Bible translating organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators, and a linguistic training program, Summer Institute of Linguistics International, which is influential throughout the world.

Townsend, her four sisters and one brother were raised in a single-parent household by their Peruvian mother, who works as a Spanish teacher at Harding University High School in Charlotte.

“We were all raised to be self-sufficient,” Townsend said, adding that her mother has pushed her, including convincing Townsend to apply to Carolina.

Townsend attended a small Christian academy outside Charlotte that offered no Advanced Placement courses or college preparation. Even though she was elected valedictorian at her school, she didn’t feel she was prepared for Carolina being a first generation college student. Her mother disagreed.

“I wasn’t confident enough,” Townsend said. “She was.”

Applying her focus

Taking a cue from the hard work she saw her mother do, Townsend said she was determined to focus solely on her schoolwork during her first year. She felt she had to work hard to compensate for not being fully prepared for Carolina. No social life, no activities, she said to herself.

She did work hard, and focused on her academics. But she also made friends. And she learned about the organizations they had created.

“People here really do inspire you,” Townsend said. “They are passionate. And they have created organizations surrounded by passionate people.”

She plugged in at the Carolina Leadership Development Office and the LeaderShape Institute. She put to work her background and understanding that comes from being a Latina student. She joined the Scholars’ Latino Initiative and helped further its program with Latino/a students in Siler City, Chapel Hill, Asheboro, and Lee County.

And she found herself heading for a degree in education.

“My life experiences have directed me to education,” she said, referring to her family’s history. Also, as the eldest child in her family, she helped raise her sisters and brother, urging them in school. Now, one sister is a Carolina sophomore and another has just been accepted to start in the fall.

The School of Education gave her vivid experiences and opportunities she didn’t expect. The School paid her way to attend the Clinton Global Initiative University, where she worked alongside former President Bill Clinton and others on global issues and positive social change.

“I’ve been able to find my passion for teaching, but also my desire to advocate for education,” she said.

Townsend is preparing for her work in South Korea. She sees the upcoming experience as a fulfillment of a promise, explaining that when she was in high school she helped teach a group of Korean children.

“I promised them that I would come to South Korea to teach after college,” she said. “It was a goal that seemed so far away at the time,” she said. But when she discovered the Fulbright program she saw it as a way to keep the promise. “That commitment made it an emotional application process.”

Townsend said she finds herself amazed at the opportunities she’s received at Carolina and the things she has learned.

“It is a miracle for me. That’s the way I see it. But it also came with a lot of hard work and a great support system.”