The Road to the American Dream
By Beverly Clark
Mariangela Jordan 12C is an immigrant from Romania who has worked as a janitor, a roofer, a cashier, and a truck driver. This year she also is the recipient of the Lucius Lamar McMullan Award, one of Emory’s highest student honors, which comes with $20,000, no strings attached.
The McMullan Award, endowed by Emory alumnus William L. Matheson in honor of his uncle, is given to a graduating senior who exhibits “outstanding citizenship, exceptional leadership, and rare potential for service to his or her community, the nation, and the world.”
Jordan grew up in Romania under the country’s rigid Communist regime. That experience eventually pushed her to pursue the opportunities available in the United States, where she found her way to Emory via a winding road.
“To receive this award is very humbling. It’s been a long, difficult road. This phase of my life feels like a bonus lap. I felt no hope as a kid in Romania,” she says. “Being free is still amazing, every single day.”
Described by a nominator as having “the intellect of a scholar, the creativity of an artist, and the voice of a poet,” Jordan maintained a near-perfect GPA as an anthropology major after transferring to Emory College in 2009.
She has worked extensively with the local Atlanta refugee community as a tutor and advocate through the International Rescue Committee as part of Emory’s Ethics and Servant Leadership program. She will continue her research with political refugees both in Clarkston, Georgia, and in the Mizoram region of India, when she begins a graduate program in anthropology at Cornell University this fall.
“My time at Emory was challenging academically, but also gave me the opportunity to practice and apply social justice and serve the community. I did not sleep much,” she says. “I’m not sure if my peers really understand the access they have here: to be able to walk into a library with millions of books by the simple swipe of your student card and to work directly with faculty interested in your success.”
Despite earning a degree in nursing in Romania, Jordan found herself with limited options and decided to leave in 2003, first going to England (where her father lives as a political refugee) and then to the US, where she settled in South Carolina. She took any and all jobs, working as a janitor, as a roofer, and in a gas station—first as a cashier then as a manager of the business. “It took me a little while to figure out the American system, but I knew that in order to succeed I would need more education,” she says. “But to do that, I first had to save enough money so I could go to school while still being able to support my family.”
That decision literally put her on the road. Jordan crisscrossed the country as a big rig truck driver for one year, saving money for her education while also sending funds home to Romania to help her mother and grandmother.
She first learned of Emory on New Year’s Eve 2008 while pulled over on the side of the road in Wyoming, where the roads had been closed due to a storm. An Internet search for His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama (a Presidential Distinguished Professor at Emory) led her to the university’s website, which impressed her.
But Jordan started her American education at a community college, Greenville Technical College, where she was accepted into the honors program. Her professors soon saw her academic potential and encouraged her to apply to a four-year university; she applied to Emory at the last minute at a friend’s suggestion and was accepted.
As president of Emory’s Ethics and the Arts Society, a student arts organization exploring the role of arts as a tool for social change, Jordan organized multiple collaborative art events on campus highlighting the intersection between creativity and ethics. She has been a member of the Emory College Honor Council, the Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Honor Society, and the Emory Leadership Executive Roundtable.
She was named the Emory Alumni Board Leadership Scholar in 2011 and selected for the Unsung Heroine Award by the Center for Women this year. She received the Phi Theta Kappa Reynolds Scholarship for Poetry in 2009 and the Outstanding Junior Award from the Department of Anthropology in 2011.
“I count myself lucky for having had access to a high-quality education at Emory,” Jordan says. “Sadly, many people on this planet never get such an opportunity.”