Mariam Elgafy Believes in the Power of Using Your Voice

Written by Chris Pasion, graduate assistant to The Graduate School.

A headshot photo of Mariam Elgafy.

Mariam Elgafy champions empathy as the best way of communicating with and advocating for others, and this is a through line between all aspects of her life. Mariam is pursuing her MA in communication with aspirations to enter law school. She keeps a full plate at all times, which includes teaching communication classes, working at UC’s Office of Government Relations to lobby for students with policymakers, and conducting research on legislation that declares racism to be a public health crisis. And these are just a few of the things she devotes time to. She has also been a speaker coach for TEDxUCincinnati, a mentor at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, and a co-director for the UCommunicate program. In reflecting on her workload, she laughs and says, “I’ve gained immunity to coffee.”

Mariam is first and foremost a teacher. She grew up in a household where both parents are educators, and Mariam has taken their lead by teaching public speaking and business communication classes. Her focus in the classroom is on advocating for her students and helping them find their voice, even if it’s during the dreaded 8 a.m. timeslot. Public speaking is something that Mariam has always believed in the power of, and she hopes to show this to her students by having them share their own perspectives in that arena. “Their speeches are from the heart,” she says. “They truly have compelling stories, but they’re not always sure how to share them. That’s what I want to help my students find: their voice about the issues that matter to them.”

Mariam’s approach to teaching is one that encourages her students to be intrinsically motived, meaning that they’ll want to do the work for their own personal growth, rather than for the grade. Her assignments reflect this, as many of the prompts ask students to be vulnerable in the safe space of her classroom; in their speeches, students often discuss identity, race, religion, how they were raised, how therapy is going, and so on. But they also make room for less heavy activities, such as engaging in complement battles, which are like insult battles, but kind instead of demeaning. Imagine walking down Main Street and witnessing people hurl complements at each other.

Mariam’s teaching philosophy has led her to win the Excellence in Teaching Award from both the Graduate School and the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools, an achievement that will enable her to continue building upon her advocacy work for students. “When I have students feel like their professor is an advocate for them, that changes the world,” Mariam says. “Too often, students that come from diverse backgrounds just don’t have that advocate for them.” And Mariam’s advocacy for student concerns does not stop in the classroom; her work with UC’s Office of Government Relations gives her a seat the table with many education policymakers as well.

At her position in the Office of Government Relations, Mariam came across a piece of legislation that would go on to become her thesis topic: a Senate resolution declaring racism to be a public health crisis. This legislation was made in response to both police brutality and the unequal distribution of healthcare to marginalized communities, particularly in the wake of COVID-19. Mariam’s specific focus with her thesis is to analyze how government documents and major media organizations (i.e., MSNBC, CNN, and FOX) have framed this legislation to the public. Have they framed it using inclusive language, or have they used polarizing and alienating phrases to create an “us” and “them” dichotomy? And have these frames had a political, social justice, or public health concentration? Did they cover the legislation at all? 

“If there’s something that I’ve learned through analyzing this legislation, it’s that we need a lot of work and reform,” she says. “But besides the media, we need to work to be more understanding and empathetic.” She spoke about her research in a compelling Three Minute Thesis video, and her work is sure to be an important contribution to the greater societal conversation. “I’ve been blessed with an opportunity to do a master’s thesis,” she says. “I want it to be meaningful.”