Special/Signature Issues » 2015 Top 40 Under 40

Evandra Catherine, 32: Director of Community Engagement for the Department of African-American Studies, at Virginia Commonwealth University

Victims of abuse often have the flame of their potential blown out. But Evandra Catherine was strengthened by her trials.

She lived in a cycle of homelessness and abuse for most of her childhood until the age of 18, when she joined the Air Force to escape an abusive boyfriend. She thrived during her five years in the service, becoming a first responder at the Pentagon during the 9/11 attacks.

The decorated veteran says she knows that her rocky path has purpose.

“There was a reason why I was being beat, there was a reason why I was being raped. There was a reason why I was homeless,” she says. “I just didn’t know. So every day I searched and searched for those answers and I just didn’t know what to do. … Now I feel like every day when I wake up, my goal is to make sure that I am doing something to make an impact.”

She views government as a tool to change lives for the better.

As a newcomer to Virginia politics in 2013, she narrowly lost the 63rd District Virginia House of Delegates seat to then long-time incumbent Rosalyn Dance, who is now a state senator.

Catherine campaigned under her original last name, Thompson, which she changed after the primary. “I didn’t want to become known as just the girl that ran against Dance,” she says.

But she does seem reassured by the experience. “The people were voting for me because I was them,” Catherine says — “I was in their situation.”

At Virginia Commonwealth University, Catherine works with students on a number of initiatives, including a partnership with the nonprofit Art 180 to showcase student art. The organization also allows university students to teach classes.

Angelique Scott, a VCU junior who spearheaded the effort, says it wouldn’t have been possible without Catherine’s networking and connections. “She’s been a really great team player and mentor,” Scott says. “She is very consistent. It’s not, ‘I’m going to help you just this once.’”

Catherine is forging a path for herself in community activism and student engagement. She’s also working to get nonprofit status for the Identity Project, an organization she started to get black youth involved in voting and the political process.

“It’s how to navigate the system, knowing how to engage in an institution,” she says. “How far do you push the envelope? Who is there to help you?”

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that Evandra Catherine is the Director of Community Engagement for VCU's Department of African-American Studies, not the university as a whole. We apologize for the error.