Creating positive environments is James’ strength

Marquita James sampled her way through undergraduate school. Determined to stretch herself intellectually rather than default to a dominant interest — English literature — she happily indulged from one major to the next.

Marquita James discusses the finer points of her Mellon Mays research project with Gerald Izenberg, Ph.D., professor of history in Arts & Sciences - a project, Izenberg says, that has the making of a career and an identity.

Marquita James discusses the finer points of her Mellon Mays research project with Gerald Izenberg, Ph.D., professor of history in Arts & Sciences – a project, Izenberg says, that has the making of a career and an identity.

“I tried to suppress my bibliophilia and changed my course of study many times,” says James, who moved from business to political science to history to psychology. “I was just taking the classes that interested me.”

When she declared her major one last time, in spring of her junior year, James had come full circle. She will don cap and gown this week to receive a bachelor of science degree in English literature, with minors in American culture studies, text and tradition, and writing.

Her stack of courses, concentrations and credits is impressive. But James is quick to explain that it’s the extracurricular activities, and the communities they represent, that have shaped who she is and where she is headed.

“I’ve had so many meaningful experiences here,” says James, who grew up in Alexandria, a cultural nexus in the heart of Louisiana. “I’m fortunate to have located places on campus where I walk in and feel enveloped by a pocket of welcome and belonging — an envelope of community.”

James wasted little time in acclimating to life at WUSTL and was soon helping others do the same.

She served two years as a fellow in the TRIO Leadership Program, helping low-income and first-generation college students adjust to life in the WUSTL community. And, as a tutor in the Writing Center, she has eased the pain of many in their quest for an “A” paper.

College of Arts & Sciences

James has a gift and passion for creating positive environments. Determined to breathe life into an ailing project, the St. Louis Family Court Mentoring Program, that was on the verge of collapse three years ago, she helped secure resources and train students to mentor at-risk youth. In doing so, she and her classmates enhanced and solidified the program.

“Marquita has an overwhelming desire to pursue justice in American society through the study of law and research but is also deeply devoted to helping her peers reach their goals,” says Robert Koff, Ph.D., director of Cornerstone: The Center for Advanced Learning, where James has worked as a writing fellow and academic mentor.

James’ wide-ranging intellectual curiosity has taken her from a childhood fascination with marine biology — “I believed I could develop a way to interpret dolphins’ language so that humans could communicate with them and learn the mysteries of the sea,” she muses — to how cultural identity relates to politics.

The latter has been the focus of a Mellon Mays research project that James is pursuing under the direction of Gerald Izenberg, Ph.D., professor of history in Arts & Sciences.

“In the two years I worked with Marquita, I saw her project mature from a general interest in group identity formation to a sophisticated legal-historical analysis of the role of cultural identity in democracies formally founded on identity-blind individual rights,” Izenberg says.

“Watching this process was enormously exciting. It was driven by Marquita’s intelligence, ambition and social commitment, and it turned out to be the making not only of an essay but of a career and an identity,” he says.

James leaves WUSTL with distinction. A Gates Millennium Scholar, she has been named to the dean’s list several times, and the Women’s Society recently presented her with the Harriet K. Switzer Leadership Award.

In the fall, she will begin law school at either Harvard University or the University of California, Berkeley. Her goal is to work as a policy adviser for the United Nations.

“I love learning, and now teaching, so much so that I am almost certain there’s a Ph.D. in the offing for me,” she says.

About to become the first-generation college graduate in her family, James is thrilled to be hosting her mother, grandmother, aunts and cousins for Commencement weekend. On this occasion, they will be happily sampling some of James’ favorite spots: Forest Park, Six Flags and Sweetie Pie’s.