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Leading with Humanity, Elena Milius, HDP'21

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Human Development and Psychology reflects on her time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
Elena Milius

Elena Milius: "This picture is of me, and my older brother, Jim. Jim grounded me in all the ways an older brother should for a little sister, and the best parts of me are a reflection of him."

Photo courtesy of Elena Milius

The Intellectual Contribution Award recognizes 12 Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. Elena Milius will be honored with the Intellectual Contribution Award for Human Development and Psychology (HDP) at HGSE's Virtual Commencement on May 27.

Senior Lecturer Richard Weissbourd and Professor Meredith Rowe, faculty directors of HDP, comment on Milius' selection: “We are delighted to give this award to Elena. Her peers applaud her dedication to equity and excellence for all children, and her professors describe her as a passionate, wise, and generous student who adds to collective learning. As Professor Gretchen Brion-Meisels put it, 'Elena pushes us to dig a little deeper into the tensions of our work, as well as to bridge the research with everyday work in the service of young people.' We are truly grateful for her contributions to the HDP and HGSE community.”

We spoke to Milius about her time at HGSE, her future plans, and how the pandemic has changed the education landscape:

What does this photo mean to you?  

This picture is of me, and my older brother, Jim. Jim grounded me in all the ways an older brother should for a little sister, and the best parts of me are a reflection of him. Quite suddenly, he passed away in the summer of 2019. I share his picture and memory with this community because he is the reason that I became an educator, and his wisdom, love, and memory have carried me throughout this year. The work that I do today and every day is in honor of him.

In this year of remote learning, what were some of the ways you were able to connect with your peers?

Online learning is a challenge. Being on Zoom is an exhausting experience for students and professors alike, and being without people got harder as the year progressed. I’m an extrovert, so I feel really alive in the presence of others. I graduated a decade ago, and I was really looking forward to going back to school in person.

My professors were really creative and incorporated different activities into class. Dr. Mapp had us do a fashion show of our most beloved article of clothing that we wore this year. Dr. El-Amin incorporated movement breaks into class each week: we danced, we raced, we boxed, and we sang. Many of my classes had incredible playlists, which I’ll be listening to forever. 

It has been a great privilege learning alongside my classmates from across the globe. I sat amongst brilliant geniuses every day. Honestly, the friendships that I’ve been able to make began with just exchanging contact information and getting off of Zoom. From there, talking on the phone, checking in after classes,  study groups, writing collaboration sessions, and sending funny nonsense have all been ways to maintain connection. I found a sense of home in these friendships, which was such an incredible gift in this time.  

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School?

I have such a tremendous amount of love and admiration for Gretchen Brion-Meisels,  Dr. El-Amin, Dr. Mapp, and Dr. V.  All of these professors cultivated an environment where I felt safe, challenged, and a sense of belonging.

In Gretchen’s Queering class, during J-Term and in the spring, I developed a more critical analysis of what it takes to create and foster safe spaces for queer kids. At a time in our country where legislators are organizing to deny rights to LGBTQ+ communities, it is all the more critical that leaders ensure that young people, their families, and the greater community feels safe in our spaces. Gretchen pushed me to think about the multiple hidden curriculums within school settings that reinforce the binary, and this has allowed me to think about ways in which I can ensure that our community is open, loving, and welcoming. As a queer woman, I cannot express the gratitude that I have for this space.

Dr. El-Amin’s Educating to Transform class transformed my understanding of how we can help support students in dismantling systems of oppression. Dr. El-Amin’s passion, creativity, and critical thought inspired me each week. This class gave us permission to dream and to create in ways that were healing on both an individual and collective level. Dr. El-Amin asked us, “Will you sit in the fire?” as disruptors and dismantlers of racism, and I look forward to answering this call as an individual and in collaboration with my community. Additionally, Dr. El-Amin, Parastoo Massoumi, and Garry Mitchell always met the moment whether it was in celebration or crisis, and led with compassion, grace, and care.

"The pandemic has illuminated how important family engagement is in schools. While this isn’t a shift in my view,  I do see this as a moment where schools and education spaces can truly build authentic partnerships with families in meaningful and sustainable ways."

Dr. Mapp’s The Why, What, and How of School, Family, and Community Partnerships class expanded my definition and understanding of what it means to authentically engage families in school settings. Dr. Mapp both encouraged and expected us to analyze how we included student and family voice in authentic decision-making in our school settings. Dr. Mapp constantly brought in speakers to class who lived, breathed, and embodied the true meaning of family engagement.

Dr. V. helped make me feel like a fuller, more complete version of myself this year. She brought her full self to class every single week, which gave us permission to do the same. I cannot express how rare that is in any classroom, and how much of a gift it was to be able to both participate and experience this process alongside my learning community. The process of “becoming,” undoing and unlearning in her classroom was painful, and a necessary step towards healing. Michael Vázquez, our TF, was a source of encouragement and an incredible thought partner throughout this year.  

What are your post-HGSE plans?

I will be working as the Assistant Head of Middle School Programs at Alexander Twilight Academy (ATA), which is a nonprofit started by HGSE alumna Annie Weinberg, Ed.M.'17. Through rigorous, year-round academic programming, coursework, support, advocacy, enrichment, and mentorship, ATA prepares middle school students to earn admission and thrive at the nation's top high schools and colleges. ATA makes a long-term commitment to serve each student and family we admit from middle school through high school, college, and beyond. As a native of Boston, this mission is close to my heart, and I’m excited to join this team of incredible students, families, and educators. I feel grateful that this role will allow me to dream alongside children and families in Boston on how to imagine and create the world that they have always deserved.

What is something that you learned this year that you will take with you throughout your career in education? 

There are so many lessons that I learned over the course of this year, but one of the most important is encapsulated in the following poem.

IN LAK’ECH by Luis Valdez
Tú eres mi otro yo.
You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti,
If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mi mismo.
I do harm to myself.
Si te amo y respeto,
If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo.
I love and respect myself.

How has the pandemic shifted your views of education? 

The pandemic has illuminated how important family engagement is in schools. While this isn’t a shift in my view,  I do see this as a moment where schools and education spaces can truly build authentic partnerships with families in meaningful and sustainable ways. Something that we learned from Dr. Stephany Cuevas in Dr. Mapp’s The Why, What, and How of School, Family, and Community Partnerships class was that we must lead with humanity. To me, leading with humanity means we recognize the brilliance, strength, experiences and genius of our communities.