Elly Rusia: A Maker of Changemakers at Berry College

Berry College’s Elly Rusia takes advantage of all the Foundation has to offer and uses it to make a difference

When recent Berry College graduate Elly Rusia thinks back on her experiences with the Sullivan Foundation, she has a little trouble remembering exactly how it all started.

“It’s hard to pinpoint,” she says. “The whole thing just felt so natural.”

Her best guess is a workshop she attended on the Rome, Georgia, campus earlier in her college career. Spud Marshall, the Foundation’s Director of Student Engagement was there along with Alan Webb, a frequent facilitator at the Foundation’s “Ignite” retreats. The purpose of the workshop was introducing students to social entrepreneurship and filling them in about the ways the Foundation could help them.

One of Rusia’s advisors encouraged her to go to Ignite. She took the advisor’s advice… four times over. Rusia attended four retreats over the next couple of years and took the things she learned back to improve her campus, serving as one of the Foundation’s Campus Catalysts. The Catalysts’ goal is to create a team of students that work to make their campuses more dynamic places to learn about social innovation. It all started with Ignite!

“The retreats that Sullivan hosts are so amazing,” Rusia says. “They build this community in a short weekend, and I really come back feeling recharged and ready to take on the world.”

Reaching out and branching out

Her work as a catalyst and status as a retreat attendee are plenty to make Rusia a superstar in terms of her engagement with the Foundation, but it doesn’t end there. After her Junior year, she really wanted to do something unconventional instead of the same typical internships most students seek.

“I didn’t want to be in a place where I had to be in an office or corporate America,” she says.

She’d pinpointed where she wanted to be—Latin America—and how she wanted to get there. The nonprofit Social Entrepreneur Corps program sends students to Latin American countries to work as consultants with other local nonprofit agencies. The only problem for Rusia was that she didn’t have the funds to go. Sullivan had done so much for her in the past to further the goal of social engagement, so she decided to reach out.

She wrote an essay detailing her passion for the work and the good she thought it would do for her as well as the good she could do while there learning. She was given a grant, and was on her way.

“I can’t fully express how thankful I am to the Sullivan Foundation and how they’ve impacted me and encouraged me throughout my time with them,” she says.

Bringing it back home

Resources spent on Rusia have turned out to be a great investment for Sullivan. In addition to her work abroad, she enriched the Berry campus with several projects that helped bring the Foundation directly to the students.

With the help of a team she assembled at Berry, Rusia organized an ongoing series they call “Changemaker Chats,” which she describes as a sort of mini-Ignite retreat where likeminded students can get together, share and critique ideas, and build a true social innovation community.

From there, Rusia’s team dove into a second project—the Social Impact workshop. The workshops are designed to give participants a toolkit to help them get started with social ventures, teaching practical skillsets from interpersonal communication to business models.

The workshops center on particular social issues. The first one was called “Stigmas of Mental Illness.” The team put lots of effort into the preparation, but Rusia had no idea how much interest there would be.

“We didn’t plan for the amount of people that actually did show up, and there was a lot of talk on campus,” she says. “We had to get extra chairs.”

A maker of changemakers

Rusia is a perfect example of the kind of changemaker the Foundation hopes to mold, and now, she’s a maker of changemakers herself. Less than a year out from graduation, the road ahead for her could go just about any direction. She’ll always remember where it started, though.

“I’m so thankful to the people that have really invested in me,” Rusia says. “People like (retreat facilitators) David and Spud and Alan and Chad and Alexis. They do so much prep and they work so hard to have a wonderful, packed, amazing weekend. I’m also thankful for (Foundation president) Steve McDavid. I know he works hard to oversee all the operations behind the scenes. It’s truly been a wonderful time that I’ve had with them.”

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