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Class of 2021: Elijah Dawson, the first in his family to graduate from college, has big plans

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By Leila Ugincius, VCU News

Elijah Dawson believes it’s never too late to follow your dreams. In his case, he knew the only way to ultimately accomplish those dreams was to go to college.

That would have been a complete surprise to his younger self, who perceived secondary school through the lens of a series of hardships — ranging from dyslexia to fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by widespread muscle pain and often fatigue. At times, Dawson wanted to give up. But he found himself not only wanting a bachelor’s degree but to continue learning and growing for as long as possible. “The goal is to have a ‘Dr.’ in front of my name,” Dawson said.

This month, the Kansas City, Missouri, native will become the first person in his family to graduate from college when he receives a bachelor’s degree in art history from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts.

“As neither of my parents or siblings decided to go to college, I made it my mission to decide to get a college degree and be the one that other members in my family could look up to, and maybe decide that, in the future, they also want to pursue their dreams,” he said.

As a first-generation college student, it was of the utmost importance to Dawson that he find a major that would make him both happy and accomplished with whatever career path he later decided to pursue.

“This determination is probably one of the major factors that contributed to my wanting to become an art historian,” he said. “Other than just my extreme fondness for art, art history as a study grants the ability to research into studies of history, religion, culture, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, literature and apply critical knowledge.”

Dawson saw VCU as a place that could cultivate his interests in art. He said that just about every class he took at VCU challenged his thinking and fostered his knowledge and understanding at an exceptional rate. He especially credits classes he had with Kimberly N. Brown, Ph.D., who teaches gender, sexuality and women’s studies, and Catherine Roach, Ph.D., and Kathleen Chapman, Ph.D., who teach art history.

“Honestly, they pushed a logic of thinking that I did not know that I was capable of,” Dawson said. “They pushed me in ways that no other teacher has ever pushed me and made me reach for goals that I normally would never go for.”

In Dawson, Chapman said, she sees the future of the art history discipline. He is intensely curious about art and ideas, and is eager to grapple with challenging material.

“He has excellent insights into the strengths and weaknesses of both traditional art historical scholarship and recent critical attempts to nuance and decolonize the discipline,” said Chapman, an associate professor and director of graduate studies at the School of the Arts. “He is particularly interested in Japanese modernism and in Japanese contemporary art and popular culture, and he is invested in contributing to recent scholarly efforts to broaden conceptions of modernism to include art and ideas produced beyond the conventional parameters defined by Europe and the U.S.”

Overall, Dawson said, he loved his time at VCU and is ready to earn more degrees and travel the globe. After graduation, he plans to travel for a year, specifically to Japan, and eventually earn a master’s degree in Japanese art history.

Lead image: Elijah Dawson will become the first person in his family to graduate from college this month when he receives his bachelor’s degree from the VCU School of the Arts. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)