When Cherin Russell returned to college in the spring of 2020, she wondered whether she could find success as a 30-year-old nontraditional undergraduate student at the University of Kansas.
“I was so scared that my disabilities would get in the way or that my age would get in the way,” she said.
Russell had spent the previous decade battling myriad health complications. Visible and invisible disabilities, chronic illness and pain, and financial roadblocks had squashed her dream of earning a fashion degree after her graduation from Lawrence High School. Now discouragement and the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardized her educational goals again.
“I was like, ‘Really? I keep trying to get through these barriers and I keep getting them thrown,’” Russell said. “But something just lit into me.”
Russell said she wouldn’t give up. She’d already come a long way having lost 100 pounds, enduring a major surgery and 13 visits to the emergency room in 2016, and relentlessly pursuing answers to puzzling questions about her health. Her quest culminated in more than a dozen diagnoses, including fibromyalgia, polycystic ovary syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and severe ADHD.
So during her first semester as a Jayhawk, she filled her living and study spaces with self-affirmations printed on Post-it Notes for motivation. The slips bore messages like “You’ve got this,” and “You can do it.”
Russell started earning A’s, and three years later, the lifelong Lawrencian hasn’t stopped.
In April, Russell was awarded KU’s Newman Civic Fellow Award for 2023-24. As a junior majoring in English, Russell also was nominated for the McNair, Truman and Beinecke Scholarship programs. She has earned the Certificate of Excellence in French Studies three semesters in a row, the TRIO First Year Achievement Award, the Paul B. Lawson Memorial Scholarship, and second place in the Helen Rhoda Hoopes Award for best English undergraduate essay by a woman, according to a KU news release.
One of Russell’s research interests and advocacy passions involves the concept of slow violence, a term used to describe the damage slowly wrought on society through systemic social and health inequities. Like fellow LHS graduate and environmental activist Erin Brockovich, Russell wants to shed light on and prevent the harmful effects of toxic chemicals on the earth and its inhabitants. She cites the ramifications of the use of Agent Orange on multiple generations as an example.
“And then you’ll see those effects line up, and line up, and line up,” Russell said. “So I’m really interested in making that stuff visible. I’m just over the injustice of the invisible.”
KU Chancellor Douglas A. Girod lauded Russell’s commitment to her scholarship and hometown.
“Cherin has brought her strong convictions about working for the good of the community to campus,” Girod said in the news release. “Her dedication to advocating for historically underrepresented communities and people experiencing homelessness, for example, demonstrates she lives out these convictions in long-term volunteerism and service.”
Despite a transcript and CV now filled with accomplishments, Russell said, there was a time when her college GPA came in at 0.65. She said she doesn’t want to be placed on a pedestal for her GPA now but uses the anecdote to remind others that things can get better. She attended Lawrence Public Schools throughout her childhood, but she never earned a bumper sticker that boasted academic accomplishments.
“I remember wanting one of those so bad and being told, ‘No,’” Russell said. “I couldn’t even do theater because my grades were too low.”
‘This is where you need to be’
At 33, Russell has a knack for talking with people. She’s friendly, expressive and approachable — essential traits for someone who mentors and tutors fellow KU students.
Communicating always has come easy for Russell, according to her mother, Elizabeth Coleman, who goes by Liz. The pride she feels in her daughter’s successes and contributions extends much further back than Russell’s scholarship.
While raising Russell, Coleman said her family experienced two bouts of homelessness. In addition, the pair’s work and volunteer efforts with houseless people and Lawrence nonprofits spans decades. Cole once managed the former Salvation Army shelter. As a teen Russell stopped there after school and volunteered while juggling her daily homework. At 17, Russell began working as a shelter monitor and later administered youth programs there.
When COVID-19 and mask mandates took hold in 2020, the women sewed and shared reusable masks with community members. Coleman estimates the pair distributed hundreds of masks locally — many to Douglas County’s unhoused people. And recently, Russell brought her grant-writing talents and passion for environmental stewardship to the Ballard Center as a volunteer.
“We know what it’s like not to have running water,” Coleman said. “We know what it’s like to go to a park and cook on a barbecue grill. We know what it’s like to sleep in a camper.”
Coleman, 72, said that breadth of experiences helped Russell hone several strengths, some of which are empathy, advocacy and communication. Russell has schooled Coleman on the long-term health and environmental dangers of microplastics and helped transition their home to all-glass containers. Coleman said she’s not surprised to see Russell already making plans to earn a master’s degree in interdisciplinary students and pursue a career as a grant writer and environmental nonprofit advocate.
“There are times when I know she’s in pain … and I know she gets up and fights through it,” Coleman said through tears. “Cherin is very articulate. She can talk and she can make someone feel good just by talking to them, and she’s done that all her life.”
Coleman recalled the joy she felt when Russell told her she had been hired as a tutor for her KU peers, including some who identify as nontraditional students with and without disabilities.
“I went, ‘You found it! This is where you need to be,’” Coleman remembered.
Russell said she strives to support her mentees and help empower them so they’ll grow into strong advocates for themselves and others, even when it’s not easy. She encourages them to keep pushing for answers and fulfillment of their needs, including accommodations, and to fight the stigma attached to chronic health conditions.
“It’s hard to live with chronic illness,” Russell said. “It’s worse when people don’t believe you. You’ll never get that from me.”
KU student Rhiannon Schaefer, a mentee of Russell’s, described her as “engaging, authentic and informative.” Schaefer met Russell in February. Russell is an inspiration who “has been a fundamental help with improving my well-being,” said Schaefer, who majors in digital marketing communications and minors in business.
“As someone who also lives with chronic illness and relates to many obstacles she has endured, witnessing Cherin counter stereotypes through her perseverance and success is a remarkable thing to witness,” Schaefer wrote in an email.
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Xena and Zelda
On an April morning, Russell has settled into her office before meetings with her mentees. She wears a necklace with a large medallion dangling from her neck. A tiny owl perches in the middle. The jewelry, she explained, was a gift she received while leading a female-based video game guild. The group evolved into a source of strength and companionship during a difficult period for Russell when she was bed bound — too sick to work or attend college.
Russell identifies as a multicultural, biracial woman of color who possesses what she refers to as her super powers: empathy, problem solving through research, and strong communication skills. She views herself as a Xena and a Zelda — the brave fictional warrior princesses. She loves to read and write and is fascinated by the book “The Psychology of Zelda,” which explores links between the modern world and the characters in the popular video game “The Legend of Zelda.”
Russell also loves on her cat, Genevieve, in her free time and enjoys watching Gordon Ramsay and “Project Runway” with her mom.
Russell said she’s grateful for the support she’s received from her professors, family and friends, and programs such as Upward Bound and TRIO. She specifically credits former KU TRIO adviser Carsten Holm for helping her “learn to embrace and manage (her) neurodivergent struggles.”
She welcomes community members, especially those affiliated with nonprofits or advocacy groups and those with chronic health conditions or disabilities looking for answers, to reach out to her by email at email@example.com.
“I definitely want to make sure I get to know as many people and get to know not just their story but their work and see if I can help in any way,” Russell said.