Three Rivers Middle senior headed to UConn with passion for human rights

Norwich — Elise Sperry asserts she was not the same person she is now before she started at Three Rivers Middle College Magnet High School, a small dual enrollment school for students in grades 11 and 12.

Going through Waterford Public Schools, Sperry said she was "very shy, kind of more of a wallflower," and someone who didn't consider herself a leader. She focused on academics but wasn't very involved in school activities.

Now, the high school senior is the president of Students Advocating for Gender Equality, the vice president of the Middle College's chapter of National Honor Society, the student government representative for the Student Performing Arts Group, a member of the Voices of the River choir, involved with Sexual Identity and Gender Minority Advocates, and a teen ambassador for New London County 4-H.

Sperry said that while most Middle College students stick with activities and sports from their hometown's high school, or do Middle College specific clubs like yearbook or the dance planning committee, she is one of only two to immerse herself in college club life.

"I would say I definitely did not get the traditional high school experience, and I'm very glad about that," she said. Rather, she has befriended people — mostly a few years older — who come from "vastly different backgrounds," and has seen what life can look like outside of what she hears traditional high schools push as the definition of success.

"They basically say: Ace your SATs, get into a college and get into your job, but there's so many other ways to go about life," Sperry said. At the Middle College, she thinks "you really see how life works outside of the cookie-cutter definition of what it's supposed to be, and I think that's a really powerful experience."

Sperry is confident that if she didn't come to Three Rivers, she wouldn't be where she is now: headed to the University of Connecticut with the Presidential Scholarship, a full ride for valedictorians and salutatorians.

The free tuition was the main reason Sperry chose UConn, but she's also excited to be at a tier one research university and to be in the honors program, which makes the large school "seem a bit smaller and more manageable" to her.

The Middle College structure is enabling her to graduate high school with an associate degree in liberal arts and sciences.

Following a passion for social justice and performing arts

Sperry is enrolling in UConn with a double major in geography and human rights. She's uncertain what she wants to do after but is considering public health or human rights law.

Her interest in geography comes from an interest in "understanding how the spatial aspect of the environment affects culture, and then culture acts back on the environment." She noted it's a growing field, due to aspects like geotagging and environmental activism.

Sperry's interest in human rights comes from a passion for social justice issues — particularly gender equality — that she largely attributes to her parents.

Her mother is a professor of management at Western New England University, mainly focused on sexual harassment prevention in the workplace. Her father is a process improvement engineer at Electric Boat, and Sperry said he's "always been kind of like the problem-solver, the helper."

With Students Advocating for Gender Equality, Sperry directed and acted in a production of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," fundraised for Safe Futures, and coordinated events in partnership with the Sexual Assault Crisis Center of Eastern Connecticut.

As a teen ambassador for New London County 4-H, Sperry has worked with local food banks, mentored in different schools, volunteered at the 4-H camp and attended the national conference in Atlanta.

With Student Performing Arts Group, her most recent work was acting as Brigid in a production of Stephen Karam's Tony Award-winning play "The Humans," centered on a family gathering for Thanksgiving, on May 10. Voices of the River also recently put on a cabaret of Broadway tunes.

At UConn, Sperry plans to continue community service, along with gender equality and LGBT activism, and hopes to continue performing in some capacity.

e.moser@theday.com

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