As college students involved in a variety of organizations, working around an extensive class schedule and pursuing various leadership roles on campus, it’s very easy to get solely absorbed in the environment around you. Elon University senior Ashley Fowler did not succumb to this pressure. Since the fall of her sophomore year, she has moved beyond Elon’s boundaries by passionately researching LGBTQ rights in Lithuania and Croatia.
During Winter Term, Fowler was recognized for her research and asked to travel to Villus, Lithuania to lead a workshop for the Lithuanian Gay League. Fowler worked with Aliona Polujanova, a volunteer coordinator at LGL to facilitate the training.
“The community in Lithuania is not so keen on LGL and getting volunteers who would be brave enough to associate with LGL’s mission seemed impossible. Right now tacking these issues is one of the priorities of LGL,” she said. “The two-day training Ashley was facilitating together with me was organized in the framework of this priority — we gathered 30 young people from around the country who wanted to know more about LGL. Our goal was to motivate them to be a part of LGBTQ activism and foster their leadership skills”
Polujanova said the workshop received great feedback and the response was extremely positive.
“Our society lacks such role models to whom young LGBTQ people could look up to. I believe passionate, strong, smart and powerful people like Ashley is something Lithuania needs to be able to have a new generation of Human Rights activist,” she said.
Fowler’s passion for the region developed after she traveled to Lithuania during the summer of her first year at Elon for a human rights and leadership conference through the Center for Leadership. A particular moment during her trip would leave a lasting impact on her and push her towards supporting the growth of LGBTQ rights in Lithuania.
“We were given the chance to meet with the Parliament and one of the members asked what their stance on homosexuality was. The man’s response was, ‘Oh homosexuals…we don’t have those here.’ After hearing that, it was just kind of a slap in the face to me. I couldn’t believe that this was a political response to such a question,” she said.
Determined to return to the region, Fowler began taking classes that were focused on human rights and applied for the Lumen Prize to support her research on a comparative study of LGBTQ rights in Croatia and Lithuania.
Fowler’s Lumen Prize advisor, Elon political science and policy studies professor Safia Swimelar, believes Fowler’s dedication and ability to maneuver through cultural boundaries is what led her to receive this opportunity.
“It sounds like a cliche, but it is true: if you work hard enough and if you have enough passion for learning and for understanding others, then you can achieve whatever you want, even something that is untypical for an undergraduate student,” Swimelar said.
Polujanova said Elon students can learn a valuable lesson from Fowler’s achievement.
“This example clearly shows how important projects of Elon students can be. Hundreds of people in Europe got to know Ashley because of her project and without that, many things would have been very different,” she said. “I believe one person can still bring an amazing change with proper support and guidance and Ashley had this from her university and professors, also from her friends and family in the U.S. This is something this community should be very proud of.”
Swimelar encourages students to recognize the interconnectedness of issues around the world.
“It is no longer possible to pretend to be insulated from what is happening outside our borders and to assume that our actions don't have effects elsewhere, whether it be the products we buy, the taxes we pay that support military action abroad, or the Hollywood images of America that the rest of the world consumes, just to name a few examples,” Swimelar said.
Fowler agrees that all issues intersect at a certain level and encourages students to look beyond their backyards.
“I’m a firm believer in the fact that all of our rights and liberties are very interconnected, so if anyone in the world is being discriminated based on their identity, then I think that affects me directly,” Fowler said. “I think we so often get caught up in the ‘Elon Bubble’ and that’s true about any place in the United States. But, it’s not just having this incredible experience for a few months while you’re studying abroad but it’s really bringing what you learn back to Elon and educating the people you surround yourselves with.”