Elinam “Eli” Dellor, a first-generation immigrant from Ghana, recalls one of her earliest experiences with racial prejudice in her adoptive country.

As a high school student preparing for college, she went to her school counselor seeking what should have been routine advice on taking the PSAT, a college readiness exam. “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 who was enrolled in AP classes, so her counselor’s reaction left her shocked, confused, and hurt. It was only after Eli found the courage to follow up with the 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.”

Today, Eli has proven, far and away, her mettle and merit for academic pursuits. She recently completed her Ph.D. in Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, and she says she continues to find herself “bucking trends” and “surprising people.”

Eli comes from a family of strong, Black women who pushed through social and geographic boundaries to accomplish the extraordinary. Her grandmother was a young orphan who taught herself to read while striving to create a better life in her native Ghana. Her mother was among the first of her family to attend college, and she made the difficult and courageous decision to move her own young family to the U.S. in search of greater opportunity.

“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.”

Yet the road to Eli’s achievement has not been an easy one.

Coming from an immigrant family with limited financial means, Eli needed to take out student loans from her earliest years in college. “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.”

Throughout her academic career, Eli has also been forced to negotiate the added obstacles that her race, gender, and immigration history pose in the context of entrenched cultures and systems that privilege her white, male peers.

In her master’s program, Eli saw how, even in a field of mostly women, the few white men in her cohort received a disproportionate share of financial support and teaching opportunities despite having an undistinguished reputation among peers. “It was so frustrating to all of the women [in the program]. As women, we can’t afford to be mediocre. We have to work harder to get noticed all the time.”

As she navigated the politics of securing funding and research opportunities, she also had an eye-opening experience in learning how some Ph.D. candidates could graduate with little or no debt. “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’m a smart woman — but that only gets you so far. You need connections.”

Privilege and advantage are not always visible. Understanding how systems work, having connections and access to people with wealth — these are factors that are often played out behind the scenes but have very real, profound impact in our lives. “As an immigrant family, you’re not established here,’” Eli explains. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Facing these and other challenges, Eli’s journey through graduate school was driven by her desire to conduct public health work in Ghana, and she sought the Ph.D. as a critical step for enabling her to direct her own work as a principal researcher.

Now carrying more than $100,000 in student debt, Eli has had to make difficult decisions in shifting her research focus to pursue fellowships and job opportunities that would reduce her financial burden, but steer her away from her true objectives. These choices have implications for not only her career trajectory, but for the communities that may or may not get the attention they need — and for which scholars like Eli are uniquely suited to study and support.

“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.”

In the end, Eli is deeply proud of her accomplishments, and she treasures her education and the access and opportunities it will eventually give her. She also intimately understands the need for diversity in academia to ensure that populations on the periphery — like her family’s native home in Ghana — can receive equal attention and opportunity.

“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.”

This is the first in Insight’s “Stories” series of first-hand accounts and experiences focused on exposing the root causes of economic exclusion and racial inequity to challenge current inequitable power structures so that everyone can fully participate in the economy, and have the freedom to bring their full selves to our diverse nation.

In the coming months, we’ll publish more stories of race, poverty, and segregation that expose hidden truths about economic exclusion and racial inequity in America.

Read Eli’s full story and additional video footage on our website.

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