A bright and curious child who was “always into something,” Richmond native Alexis Allen always loved learning.
When she reached high school, however, she started noticing that not all students have access to the same educational opportunities. “My school didn’t have a lot of money or resources for its students,” she said. “That’s kind of where I first began to understand education inequities and how that looks in the real world.”
As a University of Virginia student, Allen has dedicated her time and energy to changing that reality.
Next month, she will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in youth and social innovation from UVA’s School of Education and Human Development – having left her mark on the University and Charlottesville communities through her extensive mentoring work and her deep passion for education equity.
As a high school senior, Allen applied to UVA among a handful of Virginia schools. But she didn’t realize what the state university down the road had to offer until a friend convinced her to consider UVA as a top choice. Visits to Grounds for Black Alumni Weekend and Spring Fling, an event for newly admitted students of color, solidified her decision to attend. “Seeing the camaraderie within the Black alumni [community], and also within the students at UVA, made it feel like home,” she said.
After arriving on Grounds, Allen soon found her academic home in the youth and social innovation major. As part of an introductory course, Allen mentored a young girl through a national program called College Mentors for Kids. She was hooked.
“My mentee – it took her a while to warm up to me, but once she did, we had such a great time,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to work with youth.’”
Mentorship became a defining element of her time at UVA. Among other involvements, Allen has mentored middle school students through the Young Women Leaders Program and served as president of My Sister’s Keeper, a student organization that supports high school girls of color in Charlottesville through peer mentorship and college preparation.
For her capstone project, Allen expanded on these experiences by working with the Youth Action Lab, a program of Youth-Nex (the UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development) and the UVA Equity Center that partners with local teachers, schools and youth-serving organizations to train and support youth, particularly those from historically marginalized communities, in using research to address social problems.
“Alexis has proven herself a thoughtful and engaged student,” said Melissa Levy, program director for the youth and social innovation major. “She employs a powerful lens, wisdom and an outstanding work ethic. Outside of the classroom, she is an extraordinary student leader and advocate.”
Allen’s passion for mentorship is partly driven by personal experience. When she was in fifth grade, her mother, who had been her primary caregiver, was incarcerated. Allen unexpectedly had to move to a new neighborhood, live with her father, and adjust to middle school all at once.
“That changed a lot for me – losing my primary caregiver, someone I looked up to,” she said. “There was a really big shift in my personality. I became more reserved, and I wasn’t as active or as social as I used to be.
“That’s what motivated me to do Young Women Leaders Program, because I know what it was like for me in middle school. Had I had a mentor, I think that transition between fifth and sixth grade, and going from my mother’s to my father’s house, would have been a lot easier to process.”
Allen’s advocacy and mentoring work extends to her peers within the UVA community. She has served as a peer mentor for the Office of African American Affairs and an orientation leader for new UVA students – which she says was her favorite experience at UVA.
“You think you’re really there to help incoming and transfer students find their footing at UVA,” she said, “but the orientation program helped me find my footing at UVA.” Allen credits the lasting friendships and deep sense of community that she found among her fellow orientation leaders for giving her the confidence and the motivation to create the change she wanted to see at UVA.
Arriving at the University just after the Unite the Right white supremacist rallies and violence of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, shaped her awareness of UVA’s history and a desire to make it a more welcoming space for students of color.
Within the youth and social innovation program, Allen loved her coursework and found encouragement and mentorship from education professors Levy and Chauncey Smith. She also saw a need for the program to recruit more diverse students, so Allen approached program leaders and collaborated with them to lead the first youth and social innovation info session designed for students who are Black, indigenous or people of color – recruiting current students to sit on the panel, writing questions and facilitating the event. Several of the students who attended are now enrolled in the program.
“Alexis is one of my brightest students, and I am super proud of her,” Smith said. “Her brightness is rooted not only in her intelligence and dedication to her work – it is also rooted in her authenticity. Authenticity is a rare quality we see at the University and it works like a superpower for Alexis.”
Looking back, Allen said she would advise new UVA students to stop worrying about what everyone else is doing and focus instead on pursuing their unique interests and creating the experience they want. “Something that surprised me [about UVA] is the ability that students have to make their own path,” she said. “The opportunities are endless.”
Four years since arriving at UVA, not only did Allen create her own path – she also made sure that she widened the path behind her, so that those who follow can more easily find their way.
“Alexis has the passion, compassion, intelligence, determination, enthusiasm, initiative, commitment to equity and growth and presence that we hope for in all of our students who graduate from UVA Education and Human Development programs,” Levy said. “We are proud to have Alexis as a [youth and social innovation] student and are excited to see where her talent, skills and drive take her.”
In June, Allen will follow her passion for education into a job with Classical Charter Schools in New York City. She imagines herself someday returning to graduate school to study education policy, or perhaps running her own school. But for now, she’s excited to gain classroom experience and put what she learned at UVA into practice working directly with youth.
In everything, she’s motivated by a desire to expand opportunities for others.
“Education for me is just so important,” she said. “If it’s done right and the resources and support are there, it’s the best equalizer. It’s awful to me that some people don’t get the same opportunities. I’m not a savior – I can’t fix every problem myself – but I want to do my part.”