Motivational speaker and educational consultant Elaine Richardson told students at the West campus of her experiences as a prostitute and finding herself through education, with the hope of inspiring viewers to overcome the adversity in their lives.
Richardson has performed her story, which she calls “PHD (Poe Hoe on Dope) to Ph.D.: How Education Saved My Life,” across the country for more than two years. She said she wants to empower those who have lost hope.
“I think it’s important for people to … break that stereotype of who’s educated and who’s worthy,” she said. “All people should have a chance at life and to fulfill their dreams.”
Through her poverty-stricken childhood and rape, Richardson said she became susceptible to abuse, sexual exploitation and drug addiction.
“Pimps run on three things: ignorance, low self-esteem and a need to be loved,” she said. “And I had all three in spades.”
Since her recovery, Richardson earned a Ph.D. in English and applied linguistics from Michigan State University and published three books. College enrollment provided her the tools necessary to find herself, she said.
“(Education) was my journey to finding who I am and where I came from,” she said. “Not knowing who you are is a part of low self-esteem because, if you don’t know who you are, you don’t value who you are. It was my journey to valuing who I was.”
Richardson said her show’s title thus accurately portrays her journey from a prostitute to a doctor.
“People control you and oppress you by tagging you to this sexual label, so I wanted to break that (assumption),” she said. “You still got to see the humanity of the person, so the title of my story isn’t a contradiction. It’s my journey.”
Niko Popovich, a sociology and English junior who attended the event, said Richardson’s performance taught there is more to a first impression.
“When you meet someone, they can have so much going on in their life,” he said. “Those words that come to your mind when you meet them, that has nothing to do with them as a person. You need to take the second thought because they can have a whole past.”
International Initiatives director Duku Anokye met Richardson through academic circles nearly 20 years ago and brought her motivational performance to ASU to inspire students, she said.
“Her story is very powerful, and having read it and now seen it, it makes it even more powerful,” she said. “Her whole mission in life is to help the people who are in the position that she was in.”
Anokye said she hopes ASU students feel assured by Richardson’s story.
“Take, for example, the students at West campus,” she said. “There are many from the working class, or are first generation, and they don’t always have the motivation or believe in themselves. Her story tells you to believe in yourself and that you can be what you want to be.”
Richardson’s performance should generate dialogue between academics and students, Anokye said.
“I hope we continue this conversation,” she said. “We meet at so many angles to support our students and give them a feeling that they can do it. There are people here to mentor them, be the examples for them and just to continue that work.”