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Chatham Alumna Elizabeth Dorssom ’12 receiving her diploma


Paying It Forward

Elizabeth Dorssom ’12 draws on lessons from her own life as she guides others just starting out.



Elizabeth Dorssom remembers the exact date she received her acceptance letter from Chatham: “It was February 19, 2010, and it was one of the best days of my life.”

She was a transfer student from Redondo Beach who had spent her first two years of college at a large state university in California where she felt like a number, invisible in the crowd. When she came home for breaks, her friends told her of their experiences at smaller liberal arts schools, and she realized she needed to make a change.

“I fell in love with Chatham right away,” she says. She valued the close working relationships between students and professors and the positive atmosphere on campus. “Everyone seemed so happy.” In the months that followed, she received notes from students on campus, welcoming her to the school. Nearly a decade later, she is still friends with some of the authors of those notes.

At Chatham she pursued a Women’s Studies major and took classes in History and Political Science. Her college experience improved tenfold. But the small class sizes required her to speak up much more, and that was very uncomfortable for the shy undergrad accustomed to anonymity. A History professor, Dr. Lou Martin, took her aside. He told her to write down her thoughts before raising her hand—that way she wouldn’t stumble so much over her words—and to hold onto her leg if she started to shake. She had to set a goal of participating three times each class.

Dr. Martin’s tips worked. Elizabeth got so comfortable speaking in front of her peers that she ultimately led a lecture in his class. She would go on to speak in front of even larger crowds, gaining confidence with each experience. Dr. Martin’s influence as a mentor in her life made her want to “pay it forward” by reaching out to other students who were struggling. She began as a new student mentor, helping first years make the transition between high school and college and navigate the basics of university life.

Following graduation, Elizabeth went on to a master’s degree in Public Administration and was selected from an applicant pool of thousands to intern with the United States Agency for International Development. That internship, in which she helped analyze the success of overseas programs, led her to a PhD in Political Science at the University of Missouri.

Elizabeth Dorssom Chatham Alumna studies for her PhD in Political Science at Mizzou

She soon found that her undergrad education had prepared her very well for doctoral studies. The tutorial process at Chatham that required her to present her research before the department and take feedback from professors was particularly valuable.

Meanwhile, she has continued mentoring both undergrads and graduate students. Asked what makes her so well suited to mentorship, she says, “I’m a good listener and I genuinely want to help people. I’ve learned that there is no textbook approach—every individual deserves that one-on-one support, especially those who are facing real challenges.”

One of her proudest moments was taking student research assistants along with her on a trip to conduct elite interviews with Members of the House of Representatives in Missouri. They did very well, and one student was even brought onto the House chamber floor and invited to take part in the opening ceremonies. “She told me it really brought everything to life and changed her perspective on what she was learning,” Elizabeth remembers.

As her coursework comes to an end, Elizabeth is now preparing to write her dissertation on the impacts of various resources on politics and policy. She hopes her academic future will look a lot like her own undergrad days: “At Chatham I was able to watch my professors attend Political Science conferences while still engaging in teaching… both research and teaching were valued. I hope to take that as a model for my career and create a similar kind of atmosphere for my students.”

Asked what advice she would give her younger self, Elizabeth says, “I wish I had gotten even further outside my comfort zone. I wish I had taken classes like Calculus that scared me. Even if it’s hard in the moment, it benefits you so much in the future. College is really the time for broadening your horizons.”