Lessons in Leadership – My Undergrad Research Experience


Lessons in leadership

Today I gave my very last presentation of my undergraduate career at Elon University SURF Day (Student Undergraduate Research Forum). Woo! After giving dozens of presentations in my classes throughout my time at Elon and a handful of presentations about my larger inquiry project, it’s bittersweet knowing that this part of my academic career is at its conclusion.

However, although my time at Elon is coming to an end, undertaking a large 2-year project has taught me many lessons about myself and leadership. My project has sparked my interest in subjects that I hope to continue pursuing for the rest of my career.

Undergraduate inquiry challenges, frustrates, and ultimately grows individuals to become lifelong learners. I know that I am a better teacher, leader, and person thanks to the Leadership Prize.

My mentor, Dr. Jennifer Eidum, and I presenting at NCTE in Houston, Texas

An overview of my journey

Sophomore year, the Elon University Teaching Fellows introduced a new requirement for Teaching Fellows: an inquiry project. This requirement mandated that each Teaching Fellow complete a project during the Fall and/or Spring of their junior year. When this project was first introduced, I knew that I wanted my project to have an impact on my community. Therefore, I began searching for a mentor early during the fall of my sophomore year before I went abroad.

That semester, I had just completed Dr. Jennifer Eidum’s TESOL class (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). I had always had an interest in working with diverse learners, teaching speakers of other languages, and had considered teaching abroad, but it was this class that truly sparked my interest.

For the TESOL class, I spent approximately 30 hours volunteering at the Greensboro Newcomers Center and tutoring recent immigrants from northern Africa at an after-school program. Through spending time at the Newcomers Center and other experiences in the Alamance Burlington School District, I began to see the need for systematic improvements and increased teacher training to adapt to the growing immigrant and English learning population in North Carolina.


Working with ELLs abroad

Dr. Eidum and I quickly connected before I went abroad and were excited about collaborating on a project, but had a barrier to getting started as I was headed abroad to Oxford, England in the spring of my sophomore year. In Oxford, thanks to TESOL class and experience at the Newcomers center, I was asked by my placement site at a local high school to work specifically with their English language learners in each student’s general education classes.

A Comparative Education class in Oxford allowed me to conduct a small-scale research project through which I sent out an email survey to each teacher that I worked with asking them questions about working with English language learners at the school. This project provided a foundation and further cultivated my interest in figuring out ways to better support English language learners.


Studying abroad in Oxford, England during the Spring of my sophomore year


Applying for the Leadership Prize

When I arrived back at Elon the fall of my junior year, Dr. Eidum and I discussed the various challenges and barriers that I would face as an undergraduate student trying to do research about English language learners. For example, it is very challenging to interview and work directly with students under the age of 18. Additionally, as a student, I do not have the expertise or the funding to tell teachers what to do or to make large scale change by increasing salaries or budgets.

We decided to apply for the Elon University Leadership Prize (a $10,000 grant that funds problem-solving research) as a way to address a large problem: the increasing amount of immigrants and English language learners moving to the state of North Carolina and to the Alamance Burlington area that is unsupported through funding, teacher training, and teacher pay. Our task as researchers was to find a way in which to support our community using our funding and time not as experts, but as organizers and supporters.


Three key lessons in leadership


  1. Gaining knowledge for the sake of knowledge versus gaining knowledge for change

When I first started my research project, I thought that the research was all about reading books, sending out surveys, and conducting interviews. While these are all important parts of the research process, my leadership prize process focused on taking the results of my study and analyzing the implications in order to do something in order to address the problem.

The knowledge that I gained from reading about English language learners and the school system not only informs how I move in my classroom and the decisions I make but has inspired me to work with my community to make a broader impact. I am so excited to share that there is a space booked for next year for what will be the second Elon English Language Teaching Symposium with plans for the event to become either annual or biannual.


2) Ask for help early and often

About halfway through my project when I began planning the symposium and working on project implementation, my anxiety was the worst that it has ever been in college. I was having trouble sleeping and I felt like I was never truly resting. I took a lot of big steps during that semester, which all involved asking for help in some way.

Firstly, I started attending therapy sessions at Elon’s counseling center and learned important outlets and coping strategies for dealing with anxiety. Secondly, I asked my parents to split the cost of a yoga membership, which changed the way I felt about myself and exercise. Thirdly, I started asking for help around campus. I learned to reach out to professors, other students, and even the Dean of Education to solicit advice for my project.

While I had heard before that the research project isn’t linear, this was the semester that I gained an insight into what that meant. Together, with the help of many others, I was able to move forward, both in my project and in my mental health.


3) It’s not about you

Midway through my project when I was feeling the pressure, I was worried about what other people would think about me if my project failed. Ultimately, I can now recognize that the project’s whole purpose was to bring together people and to share stories and I shouldn’t have been so focused on myself. If you haven’t seen Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” go watch it right now.

The most rewarding outcome from my research was hearing that one of my Elon peers was invited to share her Symposium presentation at a professional development training at a local middle school. She spoke to over 30 educators and shared her presentation titled, “The Immigrant Experience: Supporting Students in Their Educational Journey.” I am proud of the work I have done over the last 2 years not only because of the data I have collected and the presentations I have given but also because of the stories that have been shared and the conversations that have been had as a result of the work.

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This project was made possible by the generous support of the Leadership Prize, Elon Teaching Fellows, Department of English, and Global Neighborhood, with grants from Elon’s Fund for Excellence, and the Intellectual Climate committee. Thank you! 


If you have any questions about my project, please feel free to email me or reach out on the contact section of this blog! Read more about my project and Leadership Prize grant here and more about the Symposium (pre-event) here and (post-event) here.





2 thoughts on “Lessons in Leadership – My Undergrad Research Experience

  1. Thank you Courtney! I am so proud of you! What an outstanding writer you have become.! Loved reading every sentence! I am very proud to call you my granddaughter!


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