Denison University’s 178th Commencement took place on Saturday, May 18. Watch the ceremony in its entirety including commencement keynote speaker Jennifer Garner ’94.
Some people grow up their entire lives knowing what they want to be when they reach adulthood. For Elizabeth Dobbins ’13, that couldn’t be further from the truth. As the current Deputy Coroner of Charleston County, South Carolina, her career path has been anything but traditional.
“All I ever wanted to do was study art.”
Dobbins remembers visiting Denison’s campus as a senior in high school. She met with students and professors and sat in on a studio art class.
“I don’t know exactly what it was, but I just knew Denison was where I needed to be. I applied early decision as soon as I got home.”
She was accepted over Thanksgiving break and arrived on campus the following fall, at “Camp Deni-doo,” as she affectionately calls it—a reference to the fact that everyone is required to live on campus all four years.
“There’s a real camaraderie and community that’s built when you’re away from the world up on that hill. But at the same time, you’re getting all of the diverse perspectives of the world from the people who are on campus.”
She chose to pursue her BFA in Studio Art, a departure from the medical professions of her parents — her father a doctor and mother a nurse.
Associate Professor of Studio Art Micaela Vivero recalls, “At Denison Elizabeth was a very curious student who loved to learn about new materials and techniques. She definitely didn’t hesitate going the extra mile, if it made sense with her overall ideas. She would follow instructions, but at some point needed to try it out herself and find her own answers.”
As Dobbins’ art progressed, she found herself marrying her artwork with anatomy, engrossed with portraying the human body and all of its parts as a form of art.
Vivero says, “She showed a particular love of photography, but also experimented with non-traditional art making materials. and had a huge commitment to thematically exploring the human body.”
“It always amazed us that someone who started in a career as a lawyer could end up becoming an artist. It made it possible in my mind to change careers.”
As Dobbins prepared for her final semester, her father passed away. She drew strength from her grief, and with the support of her Denison art family, she completed her work for the Senior Art Show. But her mother, inspired by how Dobbins had persevered through her father’s passing, suggested she consider a very different career.
“After my father’s funeral, my mother told me she thought I would be a great funeral director. I actually got mad at her.”
After graduation, Dobbins struggled to find a career in the art world. Her mother made her a deal.
“She told me she’d pay for me to go to South Carolina to shadow a funeral director. She said if I hated it, I got a free vacation. If I loved it, I got a lifelong career.”
She packed her bags and went to South Carolina, sure that all she would enjoy was the sun and sand. But for the second time in her life, Dobbins got that gut feeling. She found purpose in being able to take care of families when they were at their most vulnerable, to be able to lighten the burden when these families needed it most.
It reminded Dobbins of her mom and dad. She saw her role as a funeral director as a way to marry art and science. To, in a way, carry on her father’s legacy as a care provider. And it turned out, she was more than prepared to adapt to change.
“My best friend Kirsyln and I used to go to talks at Denison given by alums or visiting artists. It always amazed us that someone who started in a career as a lawyer could end up becoming an artist. It made it possible in my mind to change careers.”
Dobbins loved being a funeral director, but after three years, she found herself at another crossroads, wondering what she would pursue next.
A connection at the Coroner’s Office helped her find an administrative role in their office. After a newly built autopsy suite was opened by the County, Dobbins was promoted to coordinating the space. It was something the office had never done, and she took charge of creating all policies and procedures.
In early 2019, she was named the Deputy Coroner for Charleston County, an offer that coincided with her being named Employee of the Year among the County’s 2,500 employees.
By embracing the unexpected, Dobbins found a rewarding career.
“I’ve found something I really love. I feel like I’m constantly learning in this position, and that’s what I’ve always wanted.”