Inspirational Woman Interview: Sonja Eliason

Sonja Eliason is a junior at Harvard University, where she is studying Human Evolutionary Biology and History. She is the Executive Director of Circle of Women, a student-run nonprofit founded in 2006 that works to support girls’ secondary education through planning and funding construction projects in developing countries. She is also a Data Analyst at the Harvard University Science of the Human Past Initiative and a member of the Harvard’s Franklin Fellowship, which focuses on self-improvement by bringing esteemed speakers to discuss optimizing creativity, productivity, and failing forward. She hails from Washington, DC.

How did you come to join Circle of Women and what initiatives have you implemented and led?

Sonja Eliason: I joined Circle of Women after being introduced to the organization through a mentor my freshman year at college.  I joined first as the national financial director, during which time I helped develop our current financial model and worked a lot on reorganizing our nonprofit registrations.  After a year I became the Executive Director. Since then we’ve completed two projects (a dormitory in Kenya, and a dormitory, classroom, and computer lab in India); we initiated and are currently in construction for a project in Peru (our first project in South America, all work has previously been in Africa and Asia). Internally, we redesigned and formalized the structure of our Chapters to improve communication, transparency, and efficiency..

What do you love most about your work with Circle of Women?

Sonja Eliason: The people. Everyone I’ve met, from the women at other colleges who inspire me with their dedication and hard work even while managing extremely busy academic and personal lives, to the girls and school directors we meet through our projects who will do anything to keep themselves and their friends in school; every day I’m inspired by the people I’ve met.  They remind me how important and how meaningful this work is, and it it’s the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done.

Can you tell us about your work as a Data Analyst at the Harvard University Science of the Human Past Initiative?

Sonja Eliason: Broadly, I think what’s important about my work as a Data Analyst is that if you have the privilege of attending an university, remember to take advantage of the immersive intellectual environment that you’re in.  College is the best time to let yourself completely geek out about something random—and give yourself the freedom to pursue it purely for the sake of curiosity, even if you don’t think it will relate to any future career. Don’t forget to Learn for the sake of learning.

Specifically, I record incidents of plague from ancient documents (Roman, post-Roman era), which are then compiled into a freely accessible online database that allow us to overlay different historical factors (drought, trade routes, wars, etc.) with instances of plague and make correlational observations.  It’s an effort to link technology and scholarship, and make it freely accessible to anyone who’s interested.

What are the biggest challenges associated with building secondary schools in the regions Circle of Women supports?

Sonja Eliason: Finding trustworthy partners. Circle is very careful not to engage in anything that could come close to being considered “volun-tourism,” so we made the choice a while ago that no donated funds would go to sending our volunteers to visit our projects (instead, funds go directly to projects).  But this means we are never on the ground in the places that we work.  So it is imperative that we are able to find strong, trustworthy, established partners, either in the actual schools we work with but ideally also with another nonprofit or NGO on the ground who’s connected to the school, to make sure that funds are being used as efficiently and sustainably as possible.  Selecting a partner for a project, for this reason, is one of the most time-consuming parts of our project development process.

What is your advice for individuals who hope to lead nonprofits during their college careers?

Sonja Eliason: Have a good team.  They are the ones who are going to keep you going when it gets overwhelming, and you will always be able to accomplish more with a strong team at your back.  Also, take the time to reflect and remind yourself on a weekly basis why you are doing what you are doing.  Take a look back at the impact you’ve already had to give yourself the reminder of why this work is critical. It’s so easy—when you’re bogged down by work, exams, the nitty-gritty frustrations—to forget the big picture that makes this work worth it. But you are doing something great and meaningful and you deserve to feel good about it.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you?

Sonja Eliason: My high school dean. She was my dean from sophomore through senior year.  She was incredibly supportive, encouraging, all the things you’d want a dean to be.  But she was also the first adult in my life who never hesitated to say “suck it up.”  At a period in my life where I felt like I was simultaneously experiencing my first big failures as well as trying to define for myself those things that really mattered to me, having her tough support really showed me how strong I was capable of being.  Even when she called me out, I knew she had 100% faith in me.  She went through a lot personally during those three years as well, and watching her handle all life could throw at you with such grace, gratitude, and never-give-up attitude, really shaped me.  She was definitely the embodiment of “no one said it would be easy, they just said it would be worth it.”

What are your favorite books, websites, films, and/or resources?

Sonja Eliason: I’m a huge fiction fan, so Elegance of the Hedgehog is my favorite novel.  Nonfiction would be Lessons of History.  Favorite film is Good Will Hunting, but for a documentary, definitely Girl Rising.  I read the Skimm every morning.

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