Rufus Elliott (history ‘07), Virginia Tech’s first Monacan alumnus, honored his life’s heroes — his grandmother and his mother — during the university’s annual celebration of American Indian and Indigenous Heritage Month in October 2016. He also credited Sam Cook, a professor in the Department of Sociology, with inspiring his decision to enroll at the university.

In 2001, Cook, who directs the American Indian Studies program at Virginia Tech, piloted a program called the Virginia Indian Pre-College Initiative. Through the program, Native American students in grades eight to 12 were invited to visit campus along with their parents and tribal elders. According to Cook, the goal of the initiative was to encourage students to value education in whatever form it takes.

Elliott, who had known Cook for many years, was among the students who visited campus. Several years later, he enrolled at Virginia Tech, but the path to graduation presented some unexpected challenges. In fact, Elliott found himself on academic probation and dropped out for a semester.

Through this difficult period, Elliott said that he often looked at a picture that hung on a wall in his Blacksburg apartment. Depicting a two-room schoolhouse that Monacan children had attended until the late 1960s, the photograph served as a reminder of the rarity of education among his people — including his own family. Elliott’s great-grandmother learned to read while working as a maid; his grandmother attended school only through the third grade.

Realizing the vast differences between his relatives’ educational opportunities and his own, Elliott was inspired to return to the university, becoming the first Monacan not only to attend, but to graduate from Virginia Tech.

“Events like this are nice, and it may be me being honored today,” said Elliott, “but I couldn’t have graduated without my mother and grandmother, who went through a lot to get me to Virginia Tech. I’ll get the attention today, but they are the ones to honor.”

Written by Allysah Fox, a senior studying multimedia journalism at Virginia Tech. The article first appeared in the Winter 2016–17 issue of Virginia Tech Magazine.