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Boise State’s third Rhodes Scholar continues to empower and inspire globally

A female silhouetted against the sunset walking along a graffitied wall.
Elena Gallina at Llorgara Pass in Albania. Photo Credit: Lamma Mansour

Elena Gallina graduated in 2018 with a bachelor’s in multidisciplinary studies, focused on economics, political science, gender studies, and an Arabic studies minor. She became Boise State’s third Rhodes Scholar in 2019 – the first woman from Boise State to win that honor.

After graduation, she earned two master’s degrees at Oxford, one in economics and philosophy and one in business administration with an emphasis in social impact funding. For her first degree, she wrote on women’s liberation through physical fitness, researching the history of women’s sports across six generations and seven countries.

“I interviewed 15 Olympic athletes, everyone from Rwandan swimmers to Burundian runners, to American basketball players,” Gallina said, adding that the research felt personal because she became an avid runner during her time in Boise.

Gallina now lives in Kosovo, her childhood home, where she is an economic research consultant for a San Francisco-based philanthropy.

“I’m investigating the underpinnings of empowerment and how we can shift philanthropic funding to support the empowerment of historically marginalized groups,” she said.

Gallina is also a documentary photographer. An exhibition of her work in 2021 at Boise’s Ming Studios centered on Afghan women. Gallina interviewed her subjects about the complicated and sometimes conflicting role of beauty in their lives, challenging viewers’ preconceptions of women in war zones.

“My practice focuses on what’s called ‘co-creative portraiture,’ allowing subjects to be part of how they’re portrayed,” Gallina said. “Usually, photography is exploitative. I have carved out a specialty where I seek to allow the person being photographed to take control of their own image. It’s a collaborative expression of voice.”

Gallina said she has maintained her ties to Boise, with longstanding mentors in the Honors College including Dean Andrew Finstuen.

“It’s humbling to have Elena refer to me as a mentor given her work on behalf of women around the globe and two graduate degrees from the University of Oxford. We are also increasingly peers. She often mentors me and others,” Finstuen said. “Her excellence comes through in the beauty of her photography and her drive to increase female empowerment. Those projects inform one another in a rare combination of art and social science.”

Gallina said that Boise will always have a place in her heart.

“It’s the place in America that I consider myself most ‘from,'” she said. “When people at Oxford asked, I would say that I’m a Boisean.”

More about Gallina’s background

Gallina grew up in Kosovo. Her parents worked for a non-profit humanitarian organization after the Kosovo War (1998-1999). She began college near Philadelphia, eventually moving to the West and, after a year at community college, connected with Boise State’s Honors College.

At Boise State, Gallina worked as an Albanian refugee interpreter and helped launch a communication app designed to help local service providers better engage with Boise’s refugee community. In 2016, she won a Boren Scholarship and traveled to Israel and Palestine where she used her burgeoning Arabic skills to join reconciliation activities and work as a photographer. She was a social justice advocate for the Haifa Feminist Center in Israel, conducting research for a report on gender-based violence in Palestine. In 2017, she received a Harry S. Truman Scholarship.

The words of Shelton Woods, associate dean of the Honors College, have proven prophetic, considering Gallina’s current work:

“She is a learner foremost, and then a student. She also writes about hidden lives and brings them to our attention. She does this because she seeks out the voiceless and disenfranchised and, to their amazement, wants to know them.”

— By Anna Webb