As an intern for the U.S. State Department, Elena Gallina listened as people allocated millions in aid to Syria over the summer. In 2013, she led a training on the Syrian border that was part of an income-generating project for war widows in Zaatari refugee camp.
“It continually overwhelms me how connected yet disparate these two rooms are and how critical it is that someone work to bridge the gap,” she wrote in her personal statement on the Rhodes Scholarship application.
Elena wants to start her own firm someday that would facilitate investment in women-led social entrepreneurship. The Boise State University 2018 graduate is one step closer to her dream.
She is one of 32 students selected to receive a 2019 Rhodes Scholarship, the oldest and most prestigious international academic award available to Americans. She is also one of 21 women, more than any previous single class to receive this honor.
“I am thoroughly overwhelmed, I’m still in shock,” she said.
Rhodes Scholarships provide all expenses for two or three years of study at the University of Oxford in England, where Elena will pursue a master’s degree in refugee and forced migration studies, and business administration.
“I’m motivated every day by burning curiosity and deep questions in the world,” she said. “I’m inspired daily by the people who are truly facing obstacles in their daily life.”
Elena graduated with a bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies and a minor in Arabic studies at BSU, and is passionate about changing the way international governing bodies respond to disaster and the post-conflict reconstruction process.
Elena grew up living across Southeastern Europe. She was born in Michigan, but moved to Kosovo with her parents when she was 5. She was a child of humanitarian aid workers, which moved her every year or two to a different city.
Elena lived in Europe during the aftermath of the Balkan wars, and witnessed first-hand the effects mishandled aid can have on society, and the ways in which communities struggle to recover from disaster.
“The passion for helping people and making good in the world came from my family values,” she said.
Elena was in four high school settings in three years, including home, online and international schools. She graduated a year early at a public high school outside of Philadelphia.
“My education background is very diverse, I got a richer education,” she said. “I missed out on the social part and the sense of community, but I have no regrets.”
After high school she applied to 10 universities, and was rejected by eight. The two schools that accepted her were too expensive. Elena decided to attend a community college outside Philadelphia before enrolling at BSU.
Elena received the Harry S. Truman Scholarship last year, becoming BSU’s second Truman Scholar. That award, considered one of the most prestigious national scholarships in the United States, is based on leadership, a commitment to public service and academic excellence. Prior to that, she was BSU’s first Boren Scholarship recipient. She was supported by eight additional private scholarships funded by donors to BSU.
“Education is about what you put in and your willingness to ask tough questions more than it is dotting every ‘I’ and crossing every ‘T’,” she said. “Most people think of a Rhodes Scholar as someone who is incredibly type A and I’m not that person.”
Since high school, she has worked with Syrian refugees in Jordan, aided community development in Swaziland and served in a variety of social empowerment efforts in the Balkans, Israel, Palestine and Boise. One of her independent research projects dealt with gender-based violence in refugee camps in the West Bank, and she spent her junior year studying at the University of Haifa.
“Elena leads from her heart, she isn’t just passionate about things, she moves to action quickly,” said Emily Jones, the assistant director of the Honors College at BSU. “She isn’t interested on how things will look for her, but wants to get out and do good work.”
Elena is currently living in Albania with her parents and is working for CNN Albania as a language tutor and working as a photographer for an economic development group. She plans to start school at the University of Oxford in England in the Fall of 2019.