May 7, 2014
From Villanova Athletic Communications
VILLANOVA, Pa. - Men's track & field senior Samuel Ellison recently reflected on the four years he spent at Villanova and without hesitation noted "I have taken everything I possibly could out of this place." Ellison is referring as much to his experience as an exemplary student in the classroom who is involved in a myriad of activities on campus as he is to the six All-America honors, two Penn Relays titles and four BIG EAST championships that he has collected in competition on the track.
Graduation is right around the corner, a freshly won Championship of America title from the Penn Relays is in hand and the BIG EAST and NCAA Championships are on the schedule over the next few weeks. Ellison still has plenty of time to add to the lasting legacy that he has created as a member of the Villanova community but he has already firmed up plans for the next step post-graduation. Ellison recently learned that he has been selected for one of the nation's top academic honors and will receive a Fulbright Scholarship to continue his education at the University of Birmingham in England. Ellison will pursue a degree in Migration, Policy and Superdiversity while also having the opportunity to continue his running career at Birmingham.
The application process for a nationally competitive scholarship such as the Fulbright Program is a daunting one and speaks to the extremely prestigious nature of the award. Ellison sent his application in October and was one of over 900 applicants for a program that had just 48 available spots. He found out in January that he was a finalist for the scholarship and received a final letter of approval within the past few weeks. By the time his initial application was mailed, Ellison was already months into the process.
"I knew it was competitive but I didn't know until [Director of the Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships] Jane Morris told me afterwards just how competitive it was," Ellison said. "This kind of thing takes a lot of planning. It's like applying for college but a little more focused and rigorous. Most people are thinking about it even earlier than I was. I don't know how it works at other schools but it is really great how they do it at Villanova. The professors on the committee interview you and help you edit your application. I had an interview with three professors and they were very helpful. When you hand in the application another review board looks at it and then they send it in."
The selection criteria goes beyond an applicant's academic credentials and looks ahead to what specific plans they have within their chosen field of study. Ellison had to write a personal statement and a statement of grant purpose outlining those plans and what ideas he had beyond the program at Birmingham. The requirements of the application process helped Ellison hone in on the exact program he was targeting.
"It is a big award and a big commitment so it is very, very competitive," Ellison said. "What separated me was not just having a hope or an interest but having an idea and I find that is what the other scholars had as well. It is the idea that, sure, you want to change the world but what are you going to do to change the world. What have you done? What skills do you have and what experience have you had that makes yourself marketable and applicable to whatever place you are going to be?"
Ellison will be studying in the school of Social Policy at Birmingham, specifically in the Institute for Research in Superdiversity. He explained that Birmingham is the only place in the world to offer this specific social policy program. It matched up perfectly with his interests.
"Superdiversity is a term that the British developed in the early 1990's to address migrant populations and what happens when you have migrant groups moving into rather homogenous places," Ellison said. "What I am interested in and what I write about is under-represented populations. This program is a stepping stone for me to think about different paradigms and gather some more research skills. It is a really specific social policy program that is right up my alley. Hopefully it leads to some type of career in writing or academia."
In reality Ellison's preparation for becoming a Fulbright Scholar started long before he arrived at Villanova. His interest in writing began in high school at a time when he was working on creative writing pieces and short stories. He also had an internship in high school with Montgomery Newspapers and wrote features on local musicians and other personalities. At Villanova, he was the Editor-in-Chief of The Villanovan and has continued to build an extensive catalog of writing samples.
"Since high school it has been a dream of mine to write," Ellison explained. "There is something about writing that is kind of my catharsis. That is the way I express myself and the way I want to initiate social change. Ideally my dream job would be writing for some type of nationally circulated magazine or newspaper and doing feature stories or opinion pieces. I am certainly open to other options. Academia is a possibility. I could see myself doing research or maybe working for a non-profit organization."
The concept of superdiversity that Ellison will study is a bigger one than just examining migrant populations. It is a social policy that encompasses all under-represented populations and Ellison has already had the opportunity to write extensively on the topic.
"Superdiversity is about LGBT issues, ethnic issues, religious issues," Ellison said. "I like writing about politics or about under-represented populations. We have a very rigid definition in our country of what it means to be American, whether it is based on your race or your language or whatever it might be. Whether it is religiously or ethnically we all have to learn how to interact with different people. I like immersing myself in uncomfortable situations and trying to really unpack the identity of the other."
For his senior thesis last fall Ellison compiled a 12-part writing series on underrepresented populations within the Villanova community. In addition to completing the project as part of his Communication major Ellison also published his results in the newspaper.
"My thesis was essentially a case study of how inclusive we are at Villanova towards under-represented populations," Ellison said. "Each week was a different theme and with each group I was looking at what their experience is like here. The first two weeks I talked about taking Martin Luther King's dream and applying it 50 years later to our campus. I talked about the Villanova bubble and what exactly that means. I also wrote about binary culture of Greek life on campus, students with disabilities, the LGBT community and what it is like to not be a Catholic or a Christian here. Then I did gender issues, socioeconomic status and race."
Ellison's academic accomplishments and his career goals as a writer are admirable but the opportunity to continue running competitively is also not lost on him.
"I am going to be able to run for Birmingham which is weird but awesome at the same time," Ellison said. "I want to play that out for as long as I can because I am only going to be young and fast for so long."
Over the past four years Ellison has been a key member of a resurgent Wildcats program which has returned to a place of national prominence. He was a member of a Penn Relays championship in the distance medley relay as a freshman in 2011 and bookended his career as a senior by anchoring Villanova to a Penn Relays title in the 4x800 meter relay last month. Ellison has also qualified individually for the NCAA Championships as an 800 meters runner four times, including twice in both the indoor and outdoor seasons. He will be aiming for a third straight berth in the outdoor national championships when he competes at the NCAA East Regional later this month. Beyond running collegiately, Ellison has his eye on the 2016 Olympic Trials.
"My goal as a runner is to be as consistent as possible and that is one of the things I have been able to do over my career," Ellison said. "There are so many variables that go into becoming a successful runner. Any sport is obviously a mental game but running is up there with any of them. In going for the Olympic trials that is what you have to be conscious of and mindful of. Being consistent and having fun are the big things for me. I am 21 years old, and like I said, I only get to do this once and I might as well have fun while I am doing it."
It is a unique position for Ellison to be in. In many ways he has already reached the pinnacle of academic and athletic achievement, but the doors these accomplishments have opened up for him are sure to lead to an endless possibility of bigger and better things.
"To be a Fulbright Scholar as an athlete means a lot and certainly it is not just something that I have done," Ellison noted. "I had so many incredible opportunities prior to college and during college and also so many people that have helped me to get to where I am today. Whether it is my parents or extended family, teachers and professors, people like Jane and my coaches, I had people who believed in me and believed in what I am doing."
An esteemed academic institution like Villanova has numerous examples of scholars such as Ellison. In fact the University had 10 Fulbright scholars in 2013 and will have that number again this year once all notifications have been made to the finalists for the various grants affiliated with the Fulbright Program. At the same time Ellison is a relative rarity among the Wildcats student-athletes as the recipient of a nationally competitive scholarship, although the only three Villanovans to become Rhodes Scholars have all been student-athletes. The most recent Rhodes Scholar is Jessica Wamala, a senior on the women's basketball team who received the award earlier this year.
"We need more people like Jessica, especially at a place like Villanova where there is a more intense academic rigor," Ellison said. "I have no doubt that there are more of us [student-athletes] who can handle that and Jess is a great example."
The most difficult part of the collegiate experience is adjusting to college life as a freshman and to do so while being a varsity student-athlete adds yet another level of expectations. Ellison noted that it took him some time to acclimate to being a student-athlete and realizing that there were opportunities to discover beyond going to class and practice.
"The typical depiction of a student-athlete is not what that word really means," Ellison said. "When I came to Villanova I fell into that trap of just going to school and doing track. Then I thought about how I wanted more of my college experience. I wanted to have that social aspect and to meet people. I wanted to be in organizations and do advocacy and that sort of thing. Being a Fulbright Scholar as an athlete really means a lot to me but it comes with the caveat of encouraging student-athletes to do more and to participate more on the University level. If we are going to come here to compete and we are going to be here we may as well get the full experience."
Along the way to leading Villanova to its most recent Penn Relays title, Ellison ran a split of 1:46.58 on the anchor leg of the 4x800 meter relay. That time is a new personal best and comes on the heels of a race that Ellison ran indoors at Iowa State earlier in the year. Running at the Iowa State Classic, Ellison crossed the finish line in the 800 meters in 1:48.40. No Wildcats runner in the past 10 years has run an indoor 800 meters that fast.
"When I first came here I decided I wanted to make something of the opportunity to run for Villanova," Ellison recalls. "I didn't want to just be someone who is on the team. I wanted to one of the best and be in line with all of the great runners whose names you see when you walk through Jake Nevin [Field House]. I had that kind of chip on my shoulder when I first got here."
At the same Iowa State meet where Ellison ran his fastest indoor 800 meters, current Villanova freshman Patrick Tiernan broke the indoor school record in the 5000 meters. Tiernan eclipsed the mark of all-time Wildcats great Sydney Maree, whose record had stood for more than 30 years. Sophomore Jordy Williamsz ran a Mile in 3:56.84 at Iowa State.
"This is probably the most talented team we have had on paper in a very, very long time," Ellison said. "During my freshman year Sam McEntee came and we realized quickly how good he was going to be. Then my sophomore year Rob Denault came and then Jordy Williamsz came after him. When you see success you want to be a part of it, whether it is as a prospective student-athlete or when you are already here. Having this level of talent on the team has helped us raise the bar.
We are a bigger picture than just ourselves on this team. It is a pride thing and we make a big deal about Penn Relays and talk about getting to Nationals and scoring points. People expect a lot of us in the Philadelphia area and all over the country because of the history we have had. Living up to those expectations is one thing but actualizing them on a personal level with your teammates is another. We realize the opportunity that we have now. There are so many talented athletes on the team that at this point we would be remiss not to talk about it. I wouldn't call it an obsession but to a certain extent if you want to be a successful athlete you have to be aware of it."
Villanova won the team title at the indoor BIG EAST Championships and received a total of seven All-America honors at the national meet. That followed a fall cross country season in which the Wildcats won the BIG EAST and NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional championships. Tiernan and McEntee were cross country All-Americans. Ellison and his teammates understand their place within the illustrious history of the Villanova track & field program.
"When you walk down the hallway in Jake Nevin and see all of those awards that is more than just a daily routine for us," Ellison said. "That is something that is unique to our University. We have a program that is so decorated and has had so many decorated athletes come through here so it means something to be a part of that. It is an incredibly prestigious honor to even be mentioned in the same category as the all-time Villanova greats. Our coaches always say to run for the shirt, run for the jersey and that is always something that is in the back of our heads. This is what you dream about when you come here."
Considering Ellison's remarkable academic honors and his place amongst the elite upper echelon of collegiate athletes it would be easy to view him as a combination that does not come around very often. That isn't the legacy that Ellison hopes for, however. He looks at his fellow student-athletes in all sports and recognizes both their talents on the fields of competition and their potential as members of the larger University community.
"Hopefully my experience will encourage other student-athletes to do the same because [Villanova] has so many wonderful people who are willing to help you and who are willing to stick their neck out for you and advocate on your behalf," Ellison said. "I am very thankful to have come through this place and in general I think we need to include our student-athletes in the conversation more, not just when it comes to nationally competitive scholarships but just to make sure that they are not solely looked at as athletes."