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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Class of 2021: ODU Degrees Fulfill a Childhood Dream – And Then Some – for Briana Caldwell

By Joe Garvey

Briana Caldwell set her sights on attending Old Dominion University ever since she was in elementary school.

"That was the 'hot' school back when I was growing up," she said. "And ODU had what I wanted - and it gave me more."

Caldwell has had a varied academic career at ODU, which culminates with her graduation on Saturday. She will leave with bachelor's degrees in speech therapy and philosophy with a minor in Jewish studies. She also works at the Children's Learning & Research Center, served as an ambassador for the Philosophy Department and is studying Koine Greek.

Her natural inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge fueled her academic journey.

Caldwell is a first-generation college student whose mother and father both served in the Navy. A graduate of Western Branch High School, she received an academic scholarship from ODU. She decided to major in speech therapy because of how it helped her cope with her stuttering and a desire to help others with the same problem.

"At the end of the day, I've come to the conclusion that, 'You know what? I stutter,'" she said. "It's going to be a part of my life. As long as I can communicate effectively - what I want to say and how I want to say it - then I don't see a problem with it. And there are many people who don't even notice."

Corrin Gillis, one of Caldwell's speech therapy professors, said Caldwell spoke with her recently about learning more about current treatments.

"Briana asks insightful questions," Gillis said. "She has a curiosity that is grounded in her knowledge and her experiences."

That curiosity led her to a world religions class taught by James Van Dore, senior lecturer of philosophy and religious studies.

"I've always wanted to take world religions," she said. "I find it fascinating. And he said, 'You know what? You're pretty good at this. So, why don't you try being a double major?'

"He basically saw in me when I was sophomore what I didn't see in myself. And he continues to encourage me, make me take risks and guides me in any way, shape or form."

"Each time I gave her a new and more difficult challenge, she met it," Van Dore said.

Amy Milligan, Batten Endowed Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Women's Studies and the director of the Institute of Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding, made a similar impact on Caldwell. Milligan, who calls Caldwell "a bright star in my classroom," inspired her to pursue Jewish studies. She also encouraged her to give the closing remarks at the "Unpacking Antisemitism: An Action-Based Workshop" in October.

"I was incredibly nervous," Caldwell said. "But when she reached out to me, again, she saw something in me. She said, 'I know you have this in you, I've heard you speak, I've read some of your work. You've got this, Briana.'"

"Hundreds of individuals attended the event, and Briana was the only student on the program with prominent speakers who were well advanced in their careers," Milligan said. "After the event, countless individuals reached out to comment on how incredibly moved and inspired they were by Briana's words and call to action. She was the voice from which everyone wanted more!"

Going forward, Caldwell plans to attend graduate school to "bridge the gap" between speech therapy, philosophy and religious studies to explore how "our translations or transliterations affect our understanding religious text."

Her professors are "excited to see what she does next," Gillis said.

"She not only excels academically, but she is a true thinker, able to make connections between ideas and things she has seen, learned or experienced outside of the class," Milligan added.

Caldwell is grateful for her experience at the University.

"ODU stresses that no matter what your background is, or where you come from, or what color you skin is, you bring something to the table that can overall help someone else," she said. "It doesn't matter if you're 25 coming back to finish your bachelor's; it doesn't matter if you're 30 just starting. You have something to offer, and ODU sees that."

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