KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Elizabeth "E.J." Taylor is ready to take the acting world by storm. Her love for the arts comes from her namesake—not the one who played Cleopatra on the big screen and made multiple trips to the altar.
"I was named after my grandmother. She was Elizabeth Taylor first," Taylor laughs. "Our favorite hobby was watching black and gray movies—that's what I would call them—together. Watching musicals, 'Guys and Dolls,' 'Singing in the Rain,' 'My Fair Lady,' and just soaking that in and feeling the love."
A natural performer, she felt most at home while entertaining others.
"I just fell in love with being on stage and being able to give something to people. It was the perfect thing for my energy," she says. "When I was younger, I was always scolded for being too loud and too much. But on stage, where I can shine brightest, I can be as big as I want to be and it will never be too much."
Now poised to graduate from Western Michigan University on Saturday, April 30, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre focused on acting, Taylor has honed her craft and is ready to share that passion wherever opportunity appears. As a Bronco, she not only found the spark she needed to follow her career path but the support necessary to get her to the finish line.
"I'm a first-generation college student. (My family) has had some hard times, been homeless, lived in motels and stuff like that. I'm just so grateful that I found the path I did, because I always knew what I wanted to do—being in the entertainment industry—but I didn't know if I could go for it," says Taylor, who grew up in Troy, Michigan. "I think the best thing that WMU has done for me is give me the space to accept myself fully as a good, talented and intelligent individual."
EMPOWERED TO SHINE
A key part of acting is getting into character, and for Taylor, art imitates life. She enrolled at Western as an exploratory student, trying out different majors in an effort to align her passion with her career aspirations.
"I thought about public relations because … it would give me the versatility to be in the entertainment industry, but it seemed more businesslike—like I could make money," she says. But throughout her exploration, a clear path illuminated. She realized all of the electives she took were in theater, and when the opportunity opened up to audition for theatre classes and ultimately the theatre program, she was hooked.
She joined the Fine Arts House, one of 10 Living Learning Communities on campus, where she found a community of peers who shared her love of the arts and embraced her creative spirit.
"It feels good to be around people who understand that it's more than just a passion project; it's a career that you get to build and mold for yourself," Taylor says. She also bolstered her leadership skills as both a resident assistant and learning community assistant, helping to guide younger students to success. "Because I am a Black, female, first-generation artist and I have all those identities attached to me, I'm always trying to help somebody have a smoother path."
Taylor's work within both the Department of Theatre and the Department of Housing and Residence Life helped her build important career skills that she will take with her long after graduation.
"I learned so much about customer service and activism and communication. I learned that all three of those things are my superpowers," she says. "In using them, I could help shape and mold this campus. In turn, I know how to shape and mold a community."
Taylor found a number of outlets on campus to harness her creative energy while also finding her voice as a change agent. She joined the Black affinity theatre group and the Department of Theatre's Values in Practice initiative, which was created by faculty and students to align the program's values with expectations and develop a guide to create a more balanced and collaborative work environment, and participated in Theatre for Community Health, a peer-education program that presented health messages on topics ranging from alcohol use and abuse to body immage and sexual health to the campus community.
Taylor also joined campuswide discussions aimed at moving the University forward, such as those hosted by the Racial Justice Advisory Committee. She found captive audiences in the provost, counselors and faculty who helped her find ways to make real change at the institution.
"I helped get labeling on old photos that practiced Blackface so people know this is no longer our standard. I have spoken (with Dining Services) about more vegan options and got them to post more about the calories in each food item," she says. "I have sat with my residents year after year helping them call financial aid to get more funding. I have truly left my mark on this campus."
Several faculty and staff members have also made their mark on Taylor's life. People like Katherine Harte-DeCoux, a theatre instructor always happy to step out of her office to help Taylor practice techniques, or associate professor Elizabeth Terrel and assistant professor Kate Thomsen, Taylor's self-described mentoring duo.
"They gave me the tough love and motherly love that I needed going through this college experience," she says. "They believe in my talent and ability like no one else."
Now, as Taylor prepares for the next chapter in her life—she accepted a job with the CityYear AmeriCorps program in Detroit to serve kids in the community and also plans to audition for theatre opportunities in the area—she's reflecting on her time on campus.
"I will miss singing at the top of my lungs as I walk to the Valleys from Gilmore Theatre Complex," she says. "Honestly, I'm just going to miss trying to make Western better for the people who come here next. In all the jobs that I've held on campus, working in the dining hall, residence hall or doing videos for potential students (with admissions), I have always tried to make the campus the best it can be."
Find more Bronco success stories on the Ready for Success webpage.
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