Mary Elizabeth Bruce
Mary Elizabeth Bruce’s real education began not at her high school in suburban Ohio or even her first year at UVA, but in an elementary school classroom in Washington, D.C. She spent a year before college working with AmeriCorps in inner-city schools plagued by poverty. “Some of the 10-year-olds that I knew wouldn’t graduate from high school. Some would be victims of violence and wouldn’t even see their 18th birthdays,” Bruce (Col ’04) says. “I knew that I wanted to study something that would help me address these very real problems.”
Bruce arrived at UVA with clear academic goals around which she built a curriculum that dealt with social and economic inequality related to race, gender and poverty. “Econ 101 didn’t resonate with what I’d been working on,” says Bruce. With the support of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence and mentor Professor Wende Elizabeth Marshall, Bruce earned her degree in a new interdisciplinary field, poverty studies.
Bruce was the co-president of the UVA chapter of the National Organization for Women and chair of the Minority Rights Coalition. “Being a white woman in that position was a unique challenge that year where there were conflicts on Grounds related to race and identity,” says Bruce. “A student running for president of student council was assaulted; a graduate student was murdered in her home in an incident of domestic violence; students protested the Cavalier Daily for its portrayal of race issues on Grounds.” In response to these issues, the Minority Rights Coalition helped found Kaleidoscope, a center for cultural fluency at Newcomb Hall, which invites speakers on multiculturalism and provides other diversity-related resources to students.
Bruce helped organize Take Back the Night, an annual march intended to bring light to issues related to domestic violence. “I felt very conscious of what it means to be a woman in our culture; it was a big part of my day-to-day identity,” she says. Bruce worked with the Women’s Center to educate about the role of women leaders at UVA. She started a women’s running club. She worked to provide resources for women on Grounds. “We had a mechanic come and talk to us about fixing cars. It was information our boyfriends knew and we needed to know,” says Bruce.
“One of the biggest challenges for women in the U.S. remains economic inequality. It is still true that a woman graduating from UVA will be paid less than her male counterpart,” says Bruce. “Improving the situation of women will lead the way to a fairer society, healthier children—the list goes on.”
After graduation, Bruce joined the Peace Corps and went to Morocco where she worked at a youth center. Her 27 months in Morocco revealed a different role for women than in the U.S. “One of the smartest girls I tutored was withdrawn from school by her parents because she’d been engaged to marry,” says Bruce. “It was incredibly frustrating to see her opportunities just taken away.”
Bruce continues her work in education with Raising A Reader MA, a Massachusetts affiliate of the national non-profit that promotes children’s literacy in low-income communities. “Children who are provided the tools and resources they need to develop early literacy skills to enter school ready to learn are more likely to graduate from high school, to go to college and to get good jobs.”