Eli Ratzlaff is a recent graduate from UVA (CLAS '20) who majored in Political Philosophy, Policy, and Law with a minor in History. While at UVA, Eli volunteered with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as an Immigration Intern. He also volunteered at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank as a food box packer for seniors and had a brief tenure as a tutor for elementary school children through Madison House. After graduating, Eli continued to serve in Charlottesville as an AmeriCorps Member at the IRC. The IRC is committed to helping refugees resettle and rebuild their lives in Charlottesville and across the United States. Eli serves as part of the Economic Empowerment team in the Charlottesville office, where he helps recently-resettled refugees and asylees reach economic self-sufficiency, find employment, and become financially literate in a culture that might be radically different from what they're used to.
What led to your interest in public service?
I've always been interested in public service. Both of my parents work in service roles: my dad is a licensed clinical social worker, and my mom has worked as a development officer for various nonprofits across Charlottesville. They showed me how public service can be a routine part of life, as they made careers out of it, and they continue to inspire me to make service an integral part of my life.
What has been the most rewarding aspect that comes with your community involvements?
I'm a lifelong Charlottesville resident, I was a "townie" long before I became a 'Hoo. It's a huge honor to give back to the community that has had such a large impact on my life, and it's been amazing to discover how the lives of refugees in our community cross my own. The people I serve have been through incredible struggles. Often, they have survived against all odds. Being able to help them translate those past experiences into positive assets that are valuable for them and for our community is an honor, and I learn more about resiliency and compassion in the face of trauma from them than I could ever hope to teach someone.
How has the virtual transition affected your involvements? Has your definition of service remained the same?
Well, my "commute" to the IRC has gotten easier – I just boot up my computer! Other parts of service, however, have certainly become more challenging, especially since I assist individuals who usually speak limited English and who have limited computer skills. Despite the challenges that come with the virtual transition, my definition of service has remained the same. At its core, service is all about finding a way – any possible way – to do good. I've been amazed by the resiliency and adaptability I've seen from the people at nonprofits across the country, especially at the IRC. There are seriously dedicated, passionate people out there using their power to get things done despite innumerable challenges. We're making it work!
How would you encourage others to get involved?
Become one of those people – get things done!! Start signing up for service opportunities: through Madison House, the community nonprofit board, or any of the other resources available for those interested in volunteering. You might not like every role, but you'll find what you're passionate about by occupying new roles and learning about the various issues that our community faces. Eventually, you'll find a way to address those issues that you feel especially called to address – and then let nothing stop you!
What has been the greatest class you have taken at UVA?
There were so many! A couple that come to mind are Black Fire, Ethics and Human Rights in World Politics, Greek and Roman Warfare, and a philosophy seminar on Capitalism I took in my fourth year. All of them were taught by incredible professors, and they all left a huge impact on me.
What is your favourite UVA tradition?
Trick-or-Treating on the Lawn. I used to go as a little kid, and I was delighted to rediscover the joys of trick-or-treating on the Lawn as a student. It's just as fun to be an observer! The tradition combines so many of my favorite parts of UVA: students being geeky, community engagement, fun time with friends, and, of course, Charlottesville in the fall.
If you could do one thing to make the world a better place, what would it be?
Encourage empathy. Collectively, I think we've lost touch with each other and our world – and maybe we've been out of touch for a long time. I'll do anything I can to help us find the reflections of ourselves in the other people in our world. I'm not entirely sure how to do that, and it's not something I can do on my own. But I'll do my part and work as hard as I can to encourage empathy in all!