Alumni Hall of Fame
Minneapolis College is pleased to announce this year’s Minneapolis College Hall of Fame Inductees. Minneapolis College alumni are our most treasured asset, so it is a privilege to have the opportunity to recognize their many accomplishments. This year Minneapolis College is honoring two well-deserving alumni. They have made significant contributions throughout their careers and in their communities. Congratulations to Marcella Jones and Sharifa Elaraj for embodying the spirit of Minneapolis College.
Sharifa Elaraj arrived in Minnesota from her native Panama on Dec. 23, 1993. At the time, she knew all of six words of English. Less than 10 years later, she had earned multiple academic degrees, including a Juris Doctorate from Hamline University. Today she’s a Minneapolis-based personal injury attorney with a thriving practice, a stellar reputation and numerous awards to her name.
What sparked this remarkable chain of developments?
Sharifa says much of it stems from her time at Minneapolis College. “I don’t think there were many colleges willing to take a chance on an 18-year-old who didn’t know the language,” she notes. “But Minneapolis College accepted me, and I took ESL courses to improve my speaking, along with my reading and writing skills. It was a tremendous help.”
Sharifa used the experience as a springboard, going on to earn an Associate of Arts degree before transferring to the University of Minnesota and graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Speech Communications. In 2002, she earned her law degree from Hamline University. And in 2003, she opened Elaraj & Associates Attorneys at Law.
It was, she said, the culmination of a childhood dream. “I think I wanted to be a lawyer ever since I was five or six years old,” she recalls. “Many of my family members in Panama were attorneys, and I admired how they were able to help people in need.”
Sharifa continued that legacy. Outside of her law practice, she regularly volunteers for domestic abuse shelters and such organizations as the Volunteer Lawyers Network. Many of her firm’s clients are recent immigrants and nonnative English speakers who often struggle to navigate the American legal system. “My native language has been a key in helping my clients communicate directly with me and break down the barriers that can force them to go without adequate legal representation,” she said. “Many of these underrepresented people have a hard time finding due process under the law. I have always striven to ensure cases are tried on their facts and merits, rather than prejudices in favor of or against the parties’ ethnicities.”
Sharifa adds that Minneapolis College helped shape and influence this approach. “When I was new to this country, the Minneapolis College faculty, staff and students made me feel like I belonged right away,” she said. “I am tremendously grateful for that, and I’ve tried to give back to the community in equal measure.
It was the fall of 1977, and Kansas native Marcella Jones was an excited college freshman ready for a new adventure. She didn’t realize, however, the adventure would take some unexpected turns—and ultimately land her in a faculty position at Minneapolis College.
Shortly before enrolling at the University of Kansas, Marcella decided to major in civil engineering. Why that field? “I didn’t actually know what engineering was,” she recalls. “But everyone told me it was what I should do since I’d always been a strong math and science student—and you could earn a handsome salary as an engineer.”
After two years in the program, she got married and left school to become a full-time mother. By 1988, Marcella had moved to Minnesota and restarted her academic career by enrolling in a calculus course at Minneapolis College. It was an eye-opening experience. “I realized it never made sense to pursue an engineering career—the path just didn’t fit me,” she says, adding she also accepted that math was her true passion. “As a child, I loved the sense of order and arrangement particular to math. Time would fly when I was studying the subject.”
Jones experienced another epiphany at Minneapolis College. “My experience at the College was so rewarding I realized I wanted to have the same effect on students’ lives that the Minneapolis College faculty had on mine,” said Jones. “My mentor was Diana Hestwood, a mathematics instructor who has since retired from Minneapolis College. She helped me see my love for math and my joy in helping others learn the subject was what I found truly rewarding.”
Jones eventually transferred to the University of Minnesota, where she graduated magna cum laude with a mathematics degree and a minor in computer science. She went on to earn a master’s degree in math.
Her next step was a logical one: return to Minneapolis College. She has worked as a mathematics instructor at the college since 1994, and has taught everything from introductory algebra to multivariable calculus over the last 19 years. She says the job never gets old. “My journey has helped me develop a passion for understanding my students’ journeys,” said Jones. “I still never tire of seeing the light that shines when a student realizes a certain mathematical truth for the first time or when something that seemed difficult suddenly becomes clear and attainable."
Alumni Hall of Fame nominations
The Minneapolis Community and Technical College (Minneapolis College) Alumni Hall of Fame was established in 1998 to honor exceptional Minneapolis College alumni. Alumni Hall of Fame awards are extended to alumni in recognition of their professional achievements, personal accomplishments as well as their service to their communities and society.
Each year the Alumni Advisory Committee considers nominees and will select up to four new inductees. The inductees will receive a plaque with their photo and biography. A second, identical plaque will be permanently placed in the Minneapolis College's T Building.