Some of Elizabeth Ruth Wilson’s accomplishments seem impossible, but only if you believe in limits. Wilson, 22, never has and never will.
“Often we say, ‘The sky is the limit.’ Actually, the sky is a limitation,” she said. “The interesting thing is scientists haven’t been able to measure the size of outer space or the universe because it continually expands.”
She said some adults—except for her parents– held her back as a child because of their misperceptions about what is possible and what isn’t. When she arrived at college she started hearing “yes.” Finally, she could go as fast as she wanted, learn as much as she desired. She graduated from the University of South Carolina (USC) last year, finishing in three years with five majors: international business, finance, marketing, management science and real estate. While the average student takes 12 – 16 credits a semester, Wilson took as many as 31 credits (or 10 classes) in one semester.
“I’ve always loved education,” said Wilson. “From kindergarten through high school, I never missed a day of school.”
Today, she is at Northwestern University in Chicago working on her Ph.D. in Management and Organizations. She expects to receive her doctorate in 2017. For now, she plans to become a professor in business and a researcher in conflict resolution and morality.
She grew up with two older brothers in Georgetown, S.C., where her parents Laurin and Cynthia Wilson have owned an electrical contracting company for 34 years.
In spite of her packed curriculum and academic achievements, Wilson insists that she had fun as an undergrad student.
“I went to a ton of concerts, movies, theatrical performances and the ballet,” she said. “My friends and I had dinner together every Friday, talking, doing something fun or just enjoying each other’s company.”
Throughout her education—from elementary school through college–she has always been involved in community activities, something she said she learned from her parents.
“I don’t see (community work) as extra,” she said. “I see it as what completes me. Academics fuel my service and service fuels my academics. Service has such intrinsic rewards. Just being able to help someone else has always made me feel complete.”
Colleges started making recruitment calls to the Wilson house when Elizabeth Ruth was in ninth grade. She turned down Harvard and Princeton and quite a number of other prestigious schools to attend the Honors College at USC.
“I was really interested in international business. I remember picking up the US News & World Report college book when I was in eighth or ninth grade and seeing that USC has the No. 1 international business program. I started visiting the campus and participated in a summer camp and that solidified my decision.
“I always knew I wanted to finish in 3 years,’ said Wilson, who originally thought she’d pursue three majors, then added two that seemed to make sense to her. “Growing up I wanted to do some radical things as far as academia. When I was little I thought I’d be 13 and going to college. I think being from a small town I didn’t have the opportunities some other students potentially had. So in undergrad I came up with radical ideas and hearing “yes” propelled me to do everything buzzing in my mind.”
At USC, she was often dismayed to find very few black faces in the honors programs. Not one to sit silently when a problem exists, Wilson and two other students founded the Identity Project. “The purpose was essentially to uncover the disparities in education, in both the application and enrollment into the South Carolina Honors College (SCHC),” she said.
The project brought the problem to the attention of the SCHC staff and together they all worked to come up with solutions “to strengthen the numbers of minorities.” Through a service class on diabetes in the African American community, she gave public presentations on diabetes and healthy food choices. Wilson also founded the Regalia for Hope Project, which she still runs. The organization makes earrings for female cancer patients, disseminating them free of charge to hospitals in North and South Carolina and Illinois.
At Northwestern, she has worked with a Saturday program that focuses on disparities within the secondary school system and the achievement gap for minorities. This year, she served as a teacher’s assistant for science and math in a fourth grade classroom in Chicago.
“I led small group sessions to work on advanced concepts,” she said. “I was pushing them to work on sixth and seventh grade concepts. They got it so quickly.”
In the future, Wilson plans to focus some of her research on “how the school system disadvantages, particularly minorities.”
She said she owes much of her success to her parents. “Seeing my interest in education they made sure I had opportunities to explore education the way I wanted to,” Wilson said.
Her mother, Cynthia Wilson, said they never had to push Elizabeth Ruth.
“She was always driven…,” said the elder Wilson, speaking from the family home in Georgetown, S.C. “Elizabeth Ruth loved school so much. It seemed like if she got sick it was always on the weekend. She was back in school on Monday.”
Wilson said she and her husband were away from home much of Elizabeth Ruth’s senior year in high school after one of her brothers was diagnosed with bone cancer. This meant Elizabeth Ruth stayed with relatives and friends.
“She started the first day of school without us being here… She never complained, she stayed focused and she graduated valedictorian,” her mother said.
Elizabeth Ruth’s brother has since recovered and is in college now also.
Wilson agrees that Elizabeth Ruth may have picked up her love for community work from her parents.
“She always saw us helping people. We have always taken boys in from Tara Hall, a home for boys. My husband is on their board,” said Wilson, who had just returned home from a community organization fundraiser with her husband.
At one point in the interview, Wilson barely paused for a breath when she did what mothers do: She bragged about her daughter.
“She speaks four languages besides English: Portuguese, French, Swahili and Spanish. In seventh and eighth grade she was in a Duke University program because she scored high on the SAT. She taught in Senegal, Africa last year. Harvard kept calling the house trying to recruit her. She was the ‘2011 Outstanding Woman of the Year’ at USC…”
Finally, Wilson stopped, but she had to add one more thing. “Elizabeth Ruth, if she is going to a meeting, taking a test—whatever– she calls and says I need you to pray for this. She calls at least three times a week to ask for prayer.”
All of her success, Elizabeth Ruth Wilson believes is not for her alone.
“I think my mission is to inspire people to challenge their faith and also to push boundaries so much that people realize something they thought was impossible is actually feasible and they can apply the examples from my life to their own life. No limits. No boundaries. Aim for outer space, and you will find yourself soaring among the stars.”