LEXINGTON — Elizabeth Mugo learned countless things from her classmates at Washington and Lee University. And on Thursday, she will stand before them, facing the college’s monumental Colonnade, and share those lessons with her fellow graduates.
A few months later, she will find herself learning in a much different setting — the tents and small homes of refugees in Tanzania. Mugo is one of the college’s eight graduating seniors who received a Fulbright award. She leaves for Tanzania in September.
It’s far from Mugo’s first time in Africa. She was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and lived there until she was 5 years old and her family moved to Iowa. From there, they eventually settled in Irmo, South Carolina. Mugo has traveled back to Kenya to see relatives and also studied abroad for two weeks in South Africa.
Mugo will be staying with the Tanzanian Red Cross Society, which provides food to refugees in the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp near the border of Tanzania and Burundi. Once there, she will spend her days interviewing refugees about their resettlement experience and how they imagine life afterward.
She said she’s particularly interested in how refugees learn about the United States and what kind of symbols they think represent what a “good life” would be in their new country.
“I know a lot of my family in Kenya talk about how good life must be in America,” Mugo said. “And I always want to say life is good, but there are obviously still struggles.”
After her nine months in Tanzania, Mugo said she hopes to write an academic paper or article targeted toward U.S. refugee resettlement agencies to help them understand what refugees expect when they immigrate and how to bridge those gaps.
The experience fits perfectly with her sociology and anthropology major and her poverty and human capability minor, where she studied human rights, the effects of poverty and how it intersects with race.
Her studies led her to get involved with the Community Anti-Racism Effort, a group formed in 2016 after Ku Klux Klan members scattered leaflets around Lexington. The countywide group promotes anti-racism education and also leads the CARE parade in downtown Lexington on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
While she got involved with CARE, Mugo decided to run for vice president of the executive committee, Washington and Lee’s elected student government. At the time, there were no minority student representatives. The executive committee interviews students who want to lead campus committees, makes budgeting decisions for student organizations and enforces the school’s honor code.
“When you’re making so many decisions, you want a body of people who are representative of where the school is,” she said. “I felt like there needed to be someone in the room to amplify the other voices and bring them to the table.”
Campaigning was rigorous, but Mugo won and became the first black woman to be elected as an officer.
During her tenure as vice president, President William Dudley asked Mugo to serve as a student representative on the Commission of Institutional History and Community. Dudley formed the commission to address the university’s history after the visceral national response to August 2017 events in Charlottesville, when white nationalists protested plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a city park.
Mugo met with the committee from September to April, clocking in about 300 hours of discussion, to ready the commission’s report and recommendations.
Since its release, the report has had a substantial effect on the university — campus buildings were renamed and Dudley hired a director of institutional history to build a new museum dedicated to the university’s history.
Mugo said she spoke to dozens of students about the places and symbols on campus and what they mean to them.
“I think I came out of that experience being able to see both sides,” she said. “Being a part of it, I realized what considerations have to be in place and who the stakeholders are, not only the students and faculty, but the alumni and those who donate to the university.”
Just as the commission’s report was released, Mugo was getting ready to start her term as president of the executive committee — the first black woman to hold the position.
Washington and Lee’s history is complicated, but Mugo said the university is taking small steps in the right direction. Each freshman class has been more diverse than the last, which only helps the university and students move forward, she said.
“I think the part that is still coming along is the inclusion piece and what it means to include people on the campus that we have, with the symbols that we have, with the history that we have,” she said.
“I think this university has a lot of potential to be a really great place for everyone. My four years have been great and I’ve loved the people here.”