Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, Champaign's Elizabeth Singer, a senior at University High School in Urbana, chats with The News-Gazette's Paul Wood. Singer is involved in everything from the safety of students to robotics.
You played an important role in the recent gun march. What's next?
We have been working hard to urge our state senators to vote in favor of overriding Gov. Bruce Rauner's veto of the gun dealer licensing bill. We also planned a town hall where we invited the two candidates for the local representative, although U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis did not show. There is a nationwide call to action to support survivors of gun violence on June 2. Champaign Moms Demand Action does an amazing event on the same day to support local survivors, and our coalition will be working to assist them and get youth to show up.
You're very involved in many areas. How did you get interested in learning about forgotten women in history?
Young girls are often discouraged from participating in math and science activities because they receive subtle messages through popular culture and lack of representation that women do not belong in STEM. I have always felt this as I grew up in the STEM community in Champaign-Urbana. It was really empowering for me to learn about women throughout history, from scientists to activists, because I realized that women have always been there and doing amazing work despite tremendous obstacles; their stories were just erased or hidden.
You're working on the history of the Champaign-Urbana community. What's an example of something interesting that you've learned?
I think it is really interesting to have learned that our community is so unique in terms of our large numbers of migrants from Chicago and immigrants from around the world. It was only recently that I realized that most other central Illinois communities are much more homogenous. I realize now that I am incredibly lucky to have had such an exciting childhood filled with influences from the widely varying, vibrant cultures around me.
How did you get on a robotics team? It's very interesting that you are working with kids at the Summer Youth Robotics academy.
My friends and I started an all-girls Lego league robotics team. Our robots became much more complicated over the years, and I loved that through this program, there was always room to grow and be challenged. I made incredibly intelligent friends and continued to pursue robotics activities through summer programs at the University of Illinois and Northwestern. I joined the local First Robotics Competition team, Ctrl-Z, five years ago because I had aged out of the First Lego League program. This team is a community team and has 50 members compared to my old team, which had five. I really loved the girl power of being on an all-female team as a kid, and I really love this new flavor of girl power on my new team, where all of the girls work really hard and are really close. I think that activities that combine students from many high schools across the community are very valuable. I think that the FIRST program allowed me to truly trust myself, my own intellect and my potential to do anything. It only hit me recently how second nature these skills of teaching engineering to elementary students has really become for me. A random teacher once tried to videotape me teaching a lesson so he could use this as the curriculum for his program. My favorite part of this program is that we have obtained enough funds that the price for attendance is very low, especially compared to the expensive programs at the university. We also prioritized creating scholarship funds so that anyone can have a scholarship.
Tell us about your work addressing sexual harassment and sexism in school and STEM.
I think the most impactful thing that I have done is to just talk about it. As a youth in a lot of youth spaces, I have found that there are adults that will listen and help you, but one of the biggest obstacles is the culture perpetuated by students. I remember being intimidated of speaking up, and it took years, but I did. The me too movement has made it so much easier and less taboo for a lot of my peers to talk about what is going on in every high school in Champaign-Urbana.
What are some of your other interests?
I love Chance The Rapper. I love that his lyrics are often clever word plays and references, I love his positive outlook on life and I love that he loves Chicago. I love Chicago, too. I really like to Ripstick and hope to learn to use a traditional skateboard this summer. I also love painting, drawing, petting my cat, roller coasters, performing stand-up comedy, watching stand-up comedy, spending time outside when it is warm and finding new places to eat with my friends.
Where will you be after graduation?
I will be attending Washington University in St. Louis in the fall, unless I miraculously make it off of the wait list for the University of Chicago. I want to go to law school.
How did you become interested in social justice?
I was always very interested in engineering and did not used to see a point in the humanities. I participated in dozens of STEM activities. Then, I had a traumatic brain injury when I was 15, which was the same time that I started dealing with ableism and sexism in these same STEM activities. That year, I took a sociology class and a social justice class taught by two truly amazing teachers. This changed everything for me because I gained a language to articulate what I was experiencing. I learned that my experiences were a result of a larger oppressive system, one that I could help change.
What's something almost nobody knows about you?
I really love to write. I think I am pretty good at it, too.
Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?
Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?
Before I die, I want to live in Chicago, Portland, D.C., Austin, California, New York City and Boston. I love cities.
Who are your favorite musicians and why?
I love Beyonce and Rihanna because their music is gorgeous and they are both extremely smart in their lyrics and business ventures. Both artists are unapologetic about their femininity, feminism, talent and success.
What's the happiest memory of your life?
I think that I was really happy when I was working with kids in the middle of the woods in the summer. I love how kids always surprise you with their intelligence and thoughtfulness. We had a lot of fun running around and choreographing dance parties. I also loved the warmth and focus on being present without social media or technology.
If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite?
I would have a dinner party with Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and my dad. I think that my dad would love to meet them, too.
What's your best piece of advice?
When I work with young girls, I work really hard to get across the message that they are valuable because of who they are, not because of any outside factors or because of the actions of anyone else.
What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?
I could not decide between studying sociology or computer science, so I am studying both. I have yet to see how that turns out.
Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?
I spent most of high school focusing on school and educational activities. I wish I spent more time relaxing, sleeping and having fun.
How do you handle a stressful situation?
When I become overwhelmed, I sometimes take a nap. When I wake up, I am more productive and positive. If I don't have time for a nap, I "take a lap" where I run around for a minute, then come back to focus.