Mikaela Benton

Mikaela Benton

Mikaela Benton (ΦΒΚ, Elon University) is from Woodbridge, Virginia, and holds a BA in Political Science and Spanish. She is a recipient of Phi Beta Kappa's inaugural Key Into Public Service scholarship. Mikaela is currently finishing her service year as a Fellow with Lead for North Carolina in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Upon completion, she plans to return to Northern Virginia and further her career in public service and foreign policy.



Where are you from originally? What’s your favorite cultural excursion or experience in your hometown?

The “where are you from” question has always been tricky for me since I was a military child. I’ve lived several places so I don’t know if I have an original hometown. I was born in San Antonio, Texas but only lived there for a year and a half before moving to Germany and then Georgia and then Hampton, Virginia and finally Woodbridge, Virginia. I consider myself from Woodbridge, Virginia, as my most formative experiences have happened there; it’s where I graduated from high school and coincidentally where I have lived the longest. Living in Woodbridge, I was lucky to be so close to Washington D.C., so my favorite thing to do in high school was go to D.C. for the day and spend time on the mall and in the museums. The museums exposed me to art and culture in a casual but informative way. One of my favorite museums is the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

What course from your undergraduate education changed you the most?

I took a course called “Political Communication” with Dr. Laura Roselle that turned my world upside down. The course made me question everything and think more critically about the news that I consume and the institutions that make up this country. I thought I knew how to think critically before, but that class was a master class in questioning. I will also say that it changed me because it showed me I was capable of answering my own questions, and that not all answers have to come from professors. I chose an area of political communication that I was interested in (Twitter), formed a research question, and then answered the question through my own research. Because of that experience I went on to write a thesis about how Twitter was used during the Trump presidency against congresswomen of color in the House of Representatives. The course achieved its goal of delving into the history of political communication but it also showed me how rewarding doing research can be.  

As an undergraduate, you majored in political science and Spanish. You also studied abroad in the Dominican Republic. In what ways do you think your liberal arts & sciences education shaped your experiences on and off campus?

I think my liberal arts and sciences education showed me how disciplines can overlap, and that in that overlap, I can make my own experiences. I chose to study abroad because I wanted to better my Spanish, but in that experience I also learned about political science, history, culture, and literature, other interests of mine. Some of the interdisciplinary classes that I took on campus allowed me to connect what I thought were two completely different realms and think about them in tandem. Ultimately, my liberal arts and sciences education provided me the opportunity to make my own experiences, and it has inspired my desire to work in international affairs and public service. I truly got the best of both worlds in my education, and that has allowed me to find a career path in which I don’t have to do “either or” but instead do “both and.”

You are one of the inaugural recipients of Phi Beta Kappa’s Key Into Public Service Scholarship, and you attended our Summer 2020 virtual conference where leading service organizations shared tips and suggestions for launching a public service career. What did you gain from this experience?

The conference solidified my desire to work in public service and was a great introduction to the many ways to get started in public service. I think more often than not we see well-known public servants thriving in their careers but don’t know how they started or where they started and so having options presented was extremely beneficial. Not only was that part of the conference beneficial, but also being paired with a Phi Beta Kappa professional that was doing what I wanted to do and receive advice from them on how to enter public service was fantastic. It was especially reassuring to hear that there is no “right” way to enter public service and that I will end up where I need to be at the time I need to be there.

What does the day-to-day work as a Lead for North Carolina Fellow entail? What do you enjoy most about your role?

One of the ongoing projects that I have been tasked with is creating a social media footprint for the City of Elizabeth City. Updating the public on what is going on in the city during the week, what different departments do, and how they can become involved is a short list of what the city’s social media is used for. A normal day looks like me logging in to the city’s social media accounts and updating them based on what is going on that day. Depending on the day, I might attend an event sponsored by the city to document and update social media. If there are no events scheduled for the day I might assist another department with an ongoing project. I like seeing how the work that I do directly affects the community. For example, a project that I assisted the Public Utilities Department with was for a grant application to improve and update the Water and Sewer System. Seeing how the work I do contributes to making a community better is rewarding.

What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you? 

Some of the best advice given to me was from the mentor I spoke with at the Summer 2020 virtual conference, Varina Winder, Senior Advisor in the Secretary's Office of Global Women's Issues at the Department of State. It is something that stuck with me at the time as I was going into senior year and figuring out what I was going to do when I graduated, and it is something that is relevant to me now as I am in a transition period and figuring out my next steps as my fellowship ends. She told me “you can only connect the dots looking backward, not forward.” As someone who likes to plan and make sure that every step moves me towards my goals, this advice has been very grounding. Everything won’t always make sense in the moment, the big picture isn’t necessarily always visible, but as long as I am putting one foot in front of the other, things will align as they should and my path will look all the more clear.

Phi Beta Kappa’s motto is “the love of learning is the guide of life,” and we are dedicated to life-long learning. What do you want to learn next?

I would really like to learn sign language. I have always been interested in learning how to sign, and during the early stages of the pandemic the importance of accessibility for the deaf community was something that came up on social media and reignited my desire to learn ASL. The accessibility issue was regarding masks and how they made it hard for deaf people to read lips as a means of communicating with those who don’t know ASL. I didn’t have room in my schedule to take ASL in college, so I am hoping to find a local class to learn.  I know from experience that learning another language can not only widen your circle in terms of people that you can communicate with but also expose you to another culture.

What book(s) are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend? 

I am currently reading two vastly different books, All about love by bell hooks and Dawn by Octavia E. Butler. Next on my list of books to read is The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century. After I tackle that book I will start some lighter summer books! I love a good TV show and like many others, I am enjoying the release of Stranger Things Volume 4 Part 2. If you haven’t watched Stranger Things and can stomach a little horror I definitely recommend it!