Student Commencement Speaker: Elena Elliott's Path to Duke

Daughter of an immigrant will reflect on her journey at May 14 exercises

Part of the Commencement Stories, 2017 Series
Elena Elliott's parents made sure college was on her radar. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography
Elena Elliott's parents made sure college was on her radar. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography

Duke senior Elena Elliott grew up in a setting where college was not a given.

Elliott, who will deliver the student speech at Duke commencement exercises on Sunday, said many classmates in her Dallas high school didn’t consider college possible.

“I knew many kids who were bright and could have done extremely well at a place like Duke, but college was not on their horizon,” said Elliott, the daughter of an immigrant.

In her speech Sunday, Elliott, a public policy major with a minor in economics, will touch on the journey that brought her to Duke and the people who helped along the way.

Elliott’s grandparents moved to the United States from Mexico in 1980, when Elliott’s mother was 19. Immigration laws were less strict at the time, she said. With relatives already living in Texas, the family was able to apply for and easily gain legal entry to this country.

Back in Mexico, Elliott’s grandfather ran a photo studio. Coming to America meant starting over, including mastering a new language. Her grandparents opened a restaurant, El Regio that family members still run today.

For Elliott’s mother, college wasn’t an option. Instead, she went to work at a furniture store, where she met and later married Elena’s father.

“I was very lucky because my parents valued education,” Elliott said.

Elliott internalized that parental message. Upon graduation, she will take a position with Teach for America and spend the next two years teaching kindergarten in Oakland, Calif.

When she looks back on high school, she said she’s grateful.

“I’ve seen the gap between the opportunities my peers had and the ones I’ve found here,” Elliott said. “Someone who’s seen that gap should do something about it.”

Elliott’s speech was chosen by a university selection committee from among 49 submissions, said Sterly Wilder, associate vice president for alumni affairs.

“The committee felt strongly that her message was important, compelling and would be well-received by the students and the larger commencement audience,” Wilder said.