Elinam “Eli” Dellor comes from a family of strong, Black women who pushed through social and geographic boundaries to accomplish the extraordinary. Her grandmother, Irene Akosua Dei, overcame significant adversity as a young orphan in Ghana, where she survived through subsistence work and taught herself how to read and write before going on to successfully raise eight children of her own, including Eli’s mother, Pat.
Pat continued Irene’s legacy by becoming one of the first in her family to attend college and practice sports medicine in Ghana – a field where women were scarce. Facing limits to what she could accomplish in Ghana, she made the difficult choice to move her family to the U.S. in search of greater opportunity and a better life for her children. “My parents are immigrants and they came here for a very specific reason – to ensure that we don’t struggle as much as they had to struggle,” Eli explains.
Today, Eli stands on the shoulders of her mother and grandmother as a bright and ambitious Black woman and first-generation immigrant who has a Ph.D. in Public Health from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Without a doubt, Irene’s spirit and determination flows through her. “My grandma was my first teacher, my first mentor,” Eli says. “She did everything that was out of the ordinary for her time. Being a Black woman with a Ph.D., I am also out of the ordinary. I take a lot of pleasure in bucking trends, surprising people.”
The road to Eli’s accomplishment was not an easy one. Eli immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana at the tender age of 11 and has faced racism and bias throughout her life.
One of her first experiences with racial prejudice came in the 10th grade, when she sought guidance from her school counselor on taking the PSAT to prepare for college. “The counselor took one look at me and said, ‘Don’t bother. I think you should focus on looking at community colleges. No need to take the PSAT.’” Eli was an honor roll student enrolled in AP classes, so her counselor’s reaction left her feeling surprised, confused, and hurt. It was only after Eli found the courage to follow up with her counselor that he took the time to actually look at her records and see her high academic achievement. “It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life,” Eli recalls. “He looked at me and just saw a Black girl, nothing more. I had to force him to see past that, to see me.”
This was her first introduction to racism at a systemic level, and, unfortunately, it would not be her last. Throughout her academic career, Eli saw how her race, gender, and immigration history positioned her to have to work harder, face bigger obstacles, and be at a disadvantage in comparison to her white peers.
One of the major challenges Eli now faces as a recent post-doctoral graduate is grappling with the immense debt she has acquired in taking on student loans since the start of her undergraduate work. Eli enrolled in work study programs and got whatever scholarships she could, but her family’s means were limited and student loans were a must. “It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go to college,” says Eli. “My parents made it very clear that even if we needed to take out loans, we would do whatever it took to ensure I was educated.”
Eli’s decision to continue to graduate school was not an easy one, as she worried about taking on more debt, but she felt that it was absolutely necessary to advance her career. “I was working at the Alliance for Children’s Rights on the behalf of foster youth and saw that without an advanced degree, I would be stuck in lower-level positions, and I wouldn’t be able to ever be in charge of my own work.” She wanted to continue her work with at-risk populations and also had a dream to pursue public health work in Ghana. A Master’s in Public Health (MPH) seemed like the perfect fit.
While in the MPH program, Eli saw white male privilege play out to its fullest. In a field of mostly women, there were only two men in her cohort who were white, and they received a disproportionate amount of financial support and teaching opportunities despite having an undistinguished reputation among peers. “It was so frustrating to all of the women… As women, we can’t afford to be mediocre. We have to work harder to get noticed all the time.”
When Eli received her MPH in 2008, the recession was in full effect. Facing a devastated job market, she, like many of her peers, decided to work toward a Ph.D., which would enable her to follow her dream of becoming a principal researcher.
As a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA, Eli learned that the National Institute of Health (NIH) offered a fellowship to those who would be willing to study the incorporation of psychology and biology into Public Health issues. Seeing an opportunity to earn financial support for her education, she came up with a proposal for the fellowship, applied, and was accepted. With this fellowship, Eli changed her career path from researching reproductive health in Ghana to focusing on the biological effect of childhood trauma on the adult body.
Eli has mixed emotions about the fellowship. She is thankful, of course, for the opportunity and support, and she is very proud of the work she accomplished. However, she also considers how the fellowship changed the trajectory of her career and forced her to make a hard choice in letting go of her original passion – something she has seen happen to many of her peers. “What happens is that everyone goes to where the money is, and your dreams, inspirations may not get funded,” she explains. “Specific communities may never get researched. Funding dictates what gets looked at.”
Now as a post-doc, Eli is faced with more difficult decisions. With over $112,000 in cumulative student debt, she has to look into options that will help alleviate her loans. Once again, the NIH can help. They offer to pay for up to 50% of her student loans in exchange for researching specific work.
While seeking guidance about the NIH program from her post-doc mentor, Eli had another eye-opening discovery: her mentor had no loans to pay for after she received her own Ph.D. How could someone not have any debt after so many years of education? Eli learned that her mentor’s parents both held Ph.D.s and had access to valuable information and networks that she did not. “They knew where to go to for money, how to ask for money, how to position yourself to be appealing to people to give you money,” she explains. “I had no idea about all that stuff. I’m a smart woman – but that only gets you so far. You need connections and that’s what my mentor had.”
Privilege and advantage are not always visible. Understanding how systems work, having connections and access to people with wealth – these are factors we may not always consider when we think about our own privilege and how we achieved our own success. Yet they play very real, important roles in our lives. “As an immigrant family, you’re not established here, you don’t know where the sources of funding are, you don’t know what the tricks are to get your kids a ‘free education,’” Eli explains. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Without these advantages, Eli finds herself far behind peers who graduated with little or no debt and simply have more options for working in their field. With student loan payments already eating into her limited finances, Eli needs to apply for programs like what the NIH is offering, despite the fact that it may yet again derail her from her desired career path. “What starts to happen is that the debt starts to fight with your passion,” she says. “You might end up doing something because that was where the money is.” These are difficult choices to make.
In the end, Eli is proud of her accomplishments, and she treasures her education and the access and opportunities it will eventually give her. “In academia, there are very few people who look like me,” she says. “If there aren’t people who look like me and have my background and experience, then the things that we care about will not get researched and studied.”
A person’s interests come from their own experience and knowledge base. We need diversity in academia and research to ensure that populations on the periphery can receive equal attention and opportunity. There is a tremendous need for women and people of color to be doing this work. And for that reason, Eli holds her head high and basks in the knowing that she has made her grandmother very proud as she continues to strive for the extraordinary.