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Meet Mari Oliver: Finding her purpose through Emmett Till Scholarship

Mari Oliver outside a theater marquee
Mari Oliver is the first recipient of DePaul's Emmitt Till Scholarship, created last summer in memory of all Black American lives lost to racial violence. (Photo courtesy of Mari Oliver)

Students come to DePaul from all over the world, often drawn by the opportunity to experience all that Chicago has to offer. Mari Oliver, a junior majoring in African and Black diaspora studies with a minor in public law and political thought, came for a different reason, though.

"Growing up in the South as a Black woman was very difficult. I decided to go to DePaul because I wanted to be somewhere with more diversity and exposure to more opportunities," Oliver says. "It has worked out great so far."

In December, the Texas native was announced as the inaugural recipient of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences' Emmett Till Scholarship. According to the DePaul Scholarships website, the Till Scholarship was created last summer as a part of the university’s "commitment to combat racism ... and will remember all Black American lives lost to racial violence." The scholarship is open to students with majors or minors in African and Black diaspora studies or in applied diplomacy.

The selection committee was particularly moved by Oliver's essay about her family and their experience with racism in the United States, says Amor Kohli, her advisor and chair of the ABD department.

"Mari is just a wonderful choice for the Emmett Till Scholarship," Kohli says, calling her "a first-rate student who marvelously represents our department's commitment to scholastic excellence and socially conscious inquiry."

"The essay was very personal for me," Oliver says. "It almost felt like a release when I finished writing it."

The Till Scholarship creates an opportunity for DePaul students to share their perspectives on racial justice. Applying for the scholarship gave Oliver the chance to reflect on and share her family's history, and that deepened her connection to her ancestors.

"When I was first learning about my family tree, I became incredibly interested when I realized that each person had their own unique story," Oliver explains. "My first ancestor that I know of was brought to the U.S. in 1830, and we don't know much about him, but since then my family's pattern of work has been in farming and labor. Now I'm getting a college education to pay homage to them."

Oliver initially enrolled at DePaul with a major in political science, planning to attend law school after graduation in 2022. Ultimately, Oliver switched majors to ABD because of her deep interest in Black history and politics.

"African and Black diaspora studies classes allow Oliver and all interested students to explore those subjects, along with the study of Black culture, more fully and from multiple perspectives," Kohli explains.

"Switching to an ABD major had a huge impact on me. One of my favorite classes was Black Women's Lives and Experiences with Professor Anne Mitchell. I literally had an 'aha!' moment in that class and knew I made the right decision by switching," Oliver says.

During times of extreme racial violence and political turmoil, this scholarship sends a message of solidarity by building towards racial justice. Oliver commented that her earning the scholarship has marked a new chapter in her life.

"The scholarship made me realize that I have a purpose in life, and everything my family has sacrificed has not been for nothing," she says. "Throughout all the uncertainty this past year, I gained clarity and realized my opportunity to follow my passion for law and racial justice."

Oliver is preparing to take the LSAT this October. Not only does Oliver embrace the Vincentian message of acting in service of others, but she has also set an excellent example for future candidates of the Till Scholarship. She intends to continue this excellence beyond DePaul as an attorney.