Student Elijah Armstrong takes a stand for educational equity

Dealing with epilepsy and overcoming adversity has empowered Education and Public Policy student Elijah Armstrong with an all-in sense of advocacy dynamic enough to stand up for the rights of others and even the courage and tenacity to do a little stand-up on his own.

The Penn State College of Education junior from Jacksonville, Florida, has done much more of the serious former than the comedic latter, but both have landed him in front of attentive audiences – something he seems to enjoy but perhaps didn't think would materialize just a few short years ago.

Something as simple as flashing lights in a Jacksonville prep school classroom triggered seizures accompanied by severe nausea and headaches when Armstrong, now 20, was 16.

The diagnosis of epilepsy wasn't immediate, and cooperation from the school wasn't either – Armstrong recently was the victor in a disability discrimination lawsuit against the institution. His grades plummeted at the time but his spirit remained reasonably resolute.

"I saw my situation and realized it was happening to others around me and decided to speak out about it so people would know this was a problem and know what to do about it in those situations," Armstrong said.

And so began what has been nearly a five-year odyssey of advocacy that has facilitated Armstrong to establish relationships with principal political personalities such as Maria Town, the disability adviser to President Barack Obama, and John King, the education secretary during Obama's final year of office.

When he's not busy helping others by blogging and producing a series of videos at http://www.equalopportunitiesforstudents.org/, he takes time for a little comic relief with appearances at Second Floor Stand-Up, a campus comedy group formed in 2011 that meets every Tuesday night. "It's a really supportive, really progressive group of people and just a great way for creative expression and practicing public speaking … it's a really great group," Armstrong said.

But taking a stand is more his style and Armstrong will present at the Disability Studies in Education Conference June 10 at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota in Minneapolis with Terry Watson, a representative of Disability Services at Penn State. The presentation ties in to Penn State's All In Campaign, which is a long-term, community-wide commitment to diversity and inclusion.

"It was Terry's idea to have this presentation be about how equal opportunities helps see what the University can do better, it helps students know more about resources they have both inside and outside of Penn State and about how it's applicable to other universities as well," Armstrong said.

"It's a very good fit. Most of the goals of All In, if not all the goals, are aligned with equal opportunities for students, just letting students know what their options are and having a way for students to voice concerns and voice issues in a way that people at the University who have the power to change these things can go forward and do them."

Watson said his role in accompanying Armstrong in Minneapolis is to put on display how the Disability Services Office can use student advocacy and stories to better train staff and help faculty pedagogy become more inclusive for students with disabilities.

"I had the chance to meet Elijah when he interviewed me regarding advocating for your child with a disability," Watson said. "I value my relationship with Elijah because he's a reminder of why we (Disability Services) do what we do and how important it is to our students.

"Elijah's presentation is important because it encompasses what inclusiveness looks like. This conference looks toward the future of disability studies and having a student like Elijah who advocates for himself present will help him understand what is possible and allow individuals in this field to be mindful of what is important."

Watson said the All In initiative trumpets the importance of student participation and advocacy. "All In is not about what the University can do for you, but what can the individual do to contribute to the inclusive environment at Penn State. For Elijah, it's sharing stories and advocacy," he said.

Armstrong describes himself as doing whatever he does to the biggest degree possible. He thoroughly researched Penn State to learn that its education program was one of the nation's best and that its disability services were of high quality as well. He pointed out the assistance he received from assistant professors Maryellen Schaub and Maria Lewis in the Department of Education Public Policy, among others across the University.

"I've been very blessed and I'm so thankful for knowing all of these people who are interested in initiatives like this," Armstrong said.

While he has ample time to decide on a career path, the thought process is underway. Law school for civil rights activism is on the list, as is working for education-specific publications and education lobbying groups. "The biggest thing is to make sure that what I do is beneficial not just to myself and not just to people who believe what I believe and to people who happen to be around me, but people who are in troubled situations and need to find ways out and need access to information that they don't have," Armstrong said.

"Really, the biggest thing to me is making sure that people receive the help that they need to receive -- as long as I'm benefiting people as a whole.''

This summer, Armstrong will benefit from a Washington, D.C., internship with Colorado Congressman Ed Perlmutter, who will run for governor in 2018. He said Perlmutter has a history of a vested interest in the Department of Education (DoE) and the future of students with disabilities, and that their views aligned during their interview.

Through his advocacy, Armstrong also became friends with Perlmutter's daughter, Alexis, who has helped him structure his website and at one time had a blog and video on the DoE website that featured Armstrong.

"While my story was still going on, she thought it was important to run it to show that students with disabilities are capable of doing things that other students are also capable of," Armstrong said.

"Like I am capable of being a successful Penn State student, and doing stand-up comedy and working with the Positive Change Coalition and speaking at this conference. The fact that I have epilepsy doesn't mean that I can't do these things, it just means that when I do any of these things it would be better for there to not be flashing lights in the room."

"I'm just trying to make the most of my opportunity and I'm very excited to start interning for Congressman Perlmutter," Armstrong said. "I've been very blessed to have the support of so many wonderful people … and from many sources who are very passionate about educational equity."

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Last Updated June 08, 2017