It was Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle in "Legally Blonde" who inspired Elaina Foley to embrace both her femininity and her ability, she says.
She was in sixth grade then. Now a senior at South Medford High School, Foley is an avid dancer and is academically “superhuman,” according to her math teacher, and she's headed to the East Coast, where a full-ride to Yale University awaits her this summer.
“It has everything,” she says about the school.
Foley dreams of a political career, but it’s clear she's not looking to go it alone. She sees herself as one among a larger group of women. And she wants more of them in public office.
When considering a topic for her senior project, Foley aimed to create something to encourage younger females to grasp their potential in government.
The result was a nine-week girls leadership workshop in the fall with 35 fourth- through sixth-graders at Griffin Creek Elementary. Foley brought in local politicians such as state Rep. Pam Marsh and former Jackson County Commissioner Sue Kupillas to speak, and she invited local news media to do stories about the project.
"It was a good age group because those girls haven't exactly been told by the world, 'You can't do this," she says. "But they're starting to figure out that people aren't exactly inviting them to."
Her ability to pinpoint where a need exists and then envision how to meet it seems to be part of her reputation. Cori Valois, a math teacher at South whom Foley describes as her "de facto mom," recalls when Foley decided how she wanted to raise money for an exchange trip to Alba, Italy. She and her friends planned and cooked custom-made crepes for teachers on the morning of a grading day and delivered them to every office.
"Rather than sell candy or have a car wash, she’s like, 'What could I do?'" Valois says, describing her take on Foley's mindset. "'Teachers are overwhelmed, so I will give them a break and bring them a treat.' ... I don’t think in all my years of teaching that that’s ever happened with kids."
Kalin Cross, who coaches the South Medford dance team, has seen Foley rise to the role of leader, as one of the original members of a team that's only in its third year. Cross says even though Foley isn't a captain, she garners a natural sense of authority among her peers.
"At first you think, oh, she's just quiet, but then when she decides what she's going to say, it's time for everybody to listen," Cross says.
Foley is generally soft-spoken — until she talks about her dog or topics that motivate her, such as female representation in government. She quietly earned an AP Scholar with Distinction award for passing five AP exams with top scores, and her GPA on her last transcript put her at the top of the class, she says. Cross says Foley came into the school's Future Center over the summer to get help with writing college application essays.
She seems to have embraced the exhortation written on the wall of South Medford’s main office: "Make an obstacle an opportunity: make a negative a positive."
Although she hints at some difficult circumstances in the early portions of her young life, and teachers and mentors refer to “challenges” she's had to face, Foley offers few details.
She says the fruits of what she’s accomplished matter more to her than looking behind.
“I tend to speak about it very vaguely because I just really do believe that what I've been through is for me. It's my life," she says. "For now, I draw strength in knowing that I walked through it and I am who I am because of it — maybe despite it."
For now, Foley has the end of her senior dance season, an April orientation at Yale, and June graduation with her friends to look forward to. Just a day after that, she’ll be off to the opposite coast.
She’s hoping for the chance at an internship in Washington, D.C., before she moves to Yale.
“I believe in letting things go when it’s time,” she says. “I’m ready to go.”
— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.