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Christina Cross: Finding her future at Emory

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | May 10, 2013

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Senior Christina Cross overcame many obstacles to graduate with a bachelor's degree in sociology, a wealth of new experiences, and a well-defined future. Emory Photo/Video.

While visiting with graduating senior Christina Cross over lunch, professor Deborah Lipstadt listened to her former student reflect upon her time at Emory.  

"I actually had three study abroad experiences," Cross recalled, "Spain, Nicaragua … and Emory."  

When asked what she meant, the Milwaukee, Wis., native compared the culture shock of foreign travel with adjusting to Emory — a world away from the hardscrabble life she'd known growing up.  

For years, her family had drifted town to town, state to state, buffeted by job opportunities, housing instability, and parental impulses. In 13 years of primary education, Cross attended a dozen schools in three states, including three different high schools.  

In fact, her four years at Emory represent the greatest stability she's known, admits Cross, one of six siblings and among the first generation in her family to earn a university degree.  

Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies, found the story both sobering and surprising — Cross had been relatively silent about her obstacles.  

And given her superior academic performance — highlighted with fellowships, international and local engagement, and honor societies — the professor wouldn't have guessed the disadvantages Cross had faced, making her Emory experience all the more impressive.  

"I know that for students who come from a background without privilege or parents who've gone to a university, it's a whole new world," Lipstadt says.  

"But Christina saw it as a smorgasbord — a buffet of opportunities that she would be crazy to pass up," she adds. "She was determined to make it, and she did."  

A path strewn with challenges

This month, Cross graduates with a bachelors degree in sociology, a wealth of new experiences, and a well-defined future — this fall, she begins doctoral studies in sociology with a fully funded fellowship at the University of Michigan.

None of it, Cross insists, would have been possible without what she found at Emory: academic support, financial assistance, abundant opportunities, and room to grow.  

"I was expecting a great education and I got it," Cross says. "The resources I found here are amazing."  

Cross points to Emory Advantage for making it possible; her parents couldn't afford to contribute toward her education.  Designed to assist students who can demonstrate financial need, Emory Advantage strives to make an Emory education attainable for any qualified student, regardless of income.  

In many ways, she was a perfect candidate.  

Cross was born in Milwaukee and, after many moves, eventually graduated from high school there. Her family settled into the Roosevelt Grove neighborhood, where the median household income runs about $30,000 and nearly 22 percent of residents live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data.  

Recent city crime stats show eight assaults and one shooting reported in the neighborhood already this month.  

From a young age, Cross was convinced that education was the key to stability and success. "School was a place I excelled," she says. "I really believed that despite the financial issues my family was experiencing, education would help. That if I went to college, it would help me get a better job."  

Though her parents divorced and her home life shifted — "At times I've lived with both of them and neither of them," she explains — Cross was encouraged in school and selected for gifted programs.  

But as for having one person in her life who was her rock? "I think that person was Christina," Lipstadt says.  

Looking back, Cross believes her path was strongly influenced by "people who came and went out of my life at really important points."  

She remembers a second-grade teacher who insisted on taking her students to visit the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus "so we weren't afraid of college, knew something about it," Cross recalls.  

In high school, a track coach encouraged her, buying her running shoes and cheering her on academically, as well. But much of her success came down to Cross advocating for herself.  

"In high school, my guidance counselor had at least 300 students to keep track of," she says. "By senior year, I made sure he knew my name."  

An introduction to Emory

There was no question that Cross would attend college, somewhere. It was a matter of making it happen. And Cross was tenacious.  

Methodically, she began seeking out scholarships — mostly local, nothing was too small. Between working three jobs, Cross applied for some 20 scholarships, winning nearly half of them.  

In the end, an opportunity: Marquette University offered her a full scholarship.  

But in an instant, her horizons changed. Sitting under a dryer in a beauty salon, Cross found herself discussing college plans with a cousin. The woman listened, then shook her head: "Set your sights higher," she advised.  

"She told me that her daughter had just been accepted to Emory," Cross recalls.  

Emory University: Cross had heard of it, knew it by reputation. She reached out for more information and learned of Emory Advantage — "if not for that, I could not have come." She also attended Essence of Emory, a program that invites admitted students to experience the diversity of campus life.  

"I was enamored," Cross recalls. "It was such a beautiful campus and they make you feel like a rock star with all of these programs. I was used to an urban environment, but even though Emory is secluded and not necessarily representative of Atlanta, I felt like it was a place I could call home."  

Arriving her freshman year "was a huge culture shock," Cross admits. "I felt like they dropped me in the middle of suburbia, to be honest. There was definitely a dominant culture here, one I did not know much about. How they dress, where they go to eat, speech – it was all very new to me."  

Lipstadt first met Cross when she enrolled in her freshman seminar on "Film and the Holocaust." She was struck by her willingness to engage, staying after class to discuss material, stopping by Lipstadt's office "just to check in, talk about fellowships and programs," the professor recalls.  

"She was exceptionally resourceful, especially given the fact that she didn't have that many role models who knew how to work within the academic system," Lipstadt says. "The more she came by, the more I wanted her to come by."  

As an educator, Lipstadt came to see Cross as "the kind of student who is why we do what we do."  

Finding her voice, securing a future

Over the next four years, Cross would have moments of self-doubt, reminders of a past that few shared.  

During a "Community Building and Social Change" class, Cross found herself among students assessing Atlanta neighborhoods.  Spotting a used-tire store, she noted it as a positive sign — for residents, a resource both handy and affordable. So she was surprised to find some students didn't know such stores existed or viewed them negatively.  

"When I first came here, I was nervous to share my point of view," she recalls. "Over time, I learned how important it is to speak up in class … if only to hear people say, ‘I've never thought of it that way.'"  

Despite her non-traditional background, Cross had something to offer. She came for an education, yet she contributed, too.  

"There's been so much growth — being a part of this community, I learned to validate myself, (know) that there is something I bring to the table" she says. "It reaffirms you, makes you stronger."  

Much of her success "has to do with her own internal resources that allow her to believe that she belongs and deserves, that she's capable and has a contribution to make," says Dianne Diakite´, associate professor of religion and African American studies, whom Cross recognizes for encouraging her to pursue a PhD.  

"Christina knows that she has something to offer — she is growing, developing and she has gifts and talents, knowledge and experience. And she's involved in what it is to make Emory a community where everyone can learn and grow.  

"We just helped guide and nurture something that is already there," adds Diakite´.  

Looking back, Cross still has a sense of navigating two worlds: "When I go home, I'm in a different place. Where does that leave me? Am I still working class? Am I trying to become a part of a different group, part of the elite?  

"At Emory, I kind of felt I'd fit into the mold, completely a part of the community. But I also think there is a part of me that is always outside. And that's okay, because then I would have to leave a part of who I am outside."  

For now, Cross looks forward to the rigor of doctoral studies, with a research focus on education, "not only how we can teach better, but why do we have stratification in the classroom? Schools matter, but what about background, neighborhoods, income levels? You can't ignore those societal factors."  

 Cross has a plan. She is excited, prepared for what lies ahead.  

But in the end, she is her own rock — Emory helped her see that.  

"I have surprised myself so much along the way," Cross admits. "My biggest struggle has been not being confident in my own abilities to achieve and excel."  

"If I could go back and give advice to myself as a freshman, it would be this: There will always be more challenges. Even though things will be hard, you're going to get through them. Keep doing what you're doing."