Atiba Ellis, a professor at West Virginia University College of Law, has authored several publications on the subjects of voter identification laws, American citizenship, and related topics. Prior to his tenure at WVU, Ellis worked as an associate at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP. Before all that, however, Ellis was heavily involved in student council during his high school years at Havelock High School in Havelock, NC, serving as both student council president and, ultimately, president of the North Carolina Association of Student Councils. We asked Ellis about his experiences with student council and the secret to his success.
Advise: What would you say were the main differences in serving in a state versus a school student council?
Ellis: The state convention and the state leadership workshop were both designed to give students like me opportunities to meet folks from other schools across the state and engage in leadership training and exercises. In essence, this was the opportunity for the board I served on to set a vision and encourage councils across the state to undertake that however they saw fit. It also provided an outlet to show off their work and receive awards for a job well done.
The contrast [at the local level] is it’s more day-in and day-out. My high school student council duties took up a lot more of my free time on a daily basis; meetings would happen on weekends, and there were lots of phone calls. Things happened at a lesser pace at the state level. Outside of school hours, there was always something student council-related to do. I think our student council had events going on virtually all the time.
Advise: When did you know you wanted to study law?
Ellis: After those four years of college, I realized that writing my senior thesis was an amazing experience and that I loved the work of an academic. On the other hand, there was part of me that still wanted to be connected to real people, people in the here and now, helping them with their problems. So, I spent several months after I graduated thinking about what would be a vocational choice that would let me mix those two passions—to be a scholar and still help people. That was law. And 20 years later, here I am.
Advise: At what point did you find that returning to the educational landscape was the right path for you?
Ellis: During my time as an associate at a law firm, I was provided with a teaching experience as part of a public service project that my firm had undertaken. My firm gave pro bono time for teaching a course on introducing legal reasoning to minority and economically disadvantaged students who were getting ready to start law school. The goal was to give those students a feel for what law school would be about and give them some basic skills. When I first learned about that program I was very excited—I signed up right away. After teaching the first class or two, I was really enthused about it. I asked to fill all empty slots and was happy to fill in if another teacher couldn’t make it.
I thought about that experience and went “Aha! That’s the direction I need to go in.”
Advise: How did the skills you picked up during your time in student council translate to your current career?
Ellis: In addition to honing my leadership skills and getting along with people from a diverse background with varying points of view, doing all this—both playing a leadership role at the state level, at my high school, and managing to stay in the top 10 in my class and still have a life—required a lot of organization and preparation. In a lot of ways, I learned how to multitask and be
able to think about several projects at one time and strategize the best ways to get them all done.
Most importantly, I would say perseverance, because I figured out when I was 13 that I wanted to be state association president, and I had to think about the steps to get there and how to gain the experience, credibility, and relationships to be successful in winning. There were a lot of challenges in doing that. Putting on projects and undertaking activities involves a lot of risk taking. A lot of them were successful; some of them weren’t. Running for office sometimes means you have to disappoint some people, especially those who want the same office. It forces you to explain to members why the decision didn’t go their way, but also show them their interest in student council still matters and that they’re still welcome and one issue was just that—one issue.
I just got tenure a year ago, and suffice it to say that those kinds of conversations took up a lot of my time as a full-time professor. These skills—being very clear about goals, understanding what objectives lead to achieving them, and measuring activities and evaluating things—were key. Then using that feedback to help students achieve outcomes, explaining to them why their outcomes were not what they expected, all the time maintaining the kind of connection that makes them feel like they’re part of a community—that sort of stuff is probably the biggest thing I gained from student council that I do every day.
Advise: During your middle/high school years, was there a particular teacher or adviser who influenced you most directly? Do you emulate them when you teach?
Ellis: For me, that question evokes two different answers. John McLeod was my high school student council adviser. I worked with him for four years, and although I never took a class from him, I feel like I emulate him in terms of being thoughtful and considerate and straightforward when needed, and at the same time knowing when to back off and let people make their own decisions while being supportive. And being funny. John had a wickedly humorous brand of sarcasm. And even though I haven’t spoken to him in recent years, he’s always been supportive. In fact, the last time I saw him was at my mother’s funeral a year ago. That’s the sort of person he is—if there’s a way he can support, he will, and I try to emulate that myself.
And I have to give a very brief shout-out: I ran for class vice president at the end of my 6th grade year and lost, and then I thought I was done trying to be part of student council. Then, in my 8th grade year, a teacher named Thelma Staton was walking with her students and turned to me and said, “Atiba, have you signed up to run for class officer yet?” I said, “No, I haven’t … I was thinking about it.” To which she replied, “Go ahead and do it!” and I went ahead and did it. Up until that point I wasn’t sure, but I thought, “She believes in me; I’ll go do it.” And I did, and that’s how all this other stuff started.
Advise: What are some of your most memorable career highlights to date?
Ellis: Two instances really come to mind.
- I count the high point for my student council career when I gave the closing address at the state student council convention that I had presided over. My parents were in the audience, and they got to see a bit of what all this was about and what my life had amounted to for those four years.
- When I was teaching at Howard University prior to my current position, I was very, very busy, but I had the opportunity to go back to North Carolina to give a workshop at the 2008 North Carolina Association of Student Councils State Convention. It was there the association awarded me the Frances Bounds Excellence in Leadership award. I have a very spartan office. My bookshelves are completely full, my desk and shelves have paper all over them, but I don’t have any decorations up, except one: the Frances Bounds plaque. It is very special to me.
Advise: If you were going to impart advice to the secondary level students of today, what would you share?
Ellis: I would say that life is exciting and when you get to take an opportunity, dive into it deeply, especially if it’s something that really excites you. You may recognize passion that you might not have had before. Explore that. Enthusiasm can go a long way. I believe it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
Most important, however, is perseverance. Life will get difficult at times, and you can choose to see the difficulties as problems that will shut you down, or you can see them as opportunities.
Advise: If you had to sum it up, what would you say is the key to your success?
Ellis: In all this introspection, I’ve realized that the key to my success—which is also an often-trotted-out piece of advice for lots of people—is do what you love. I really love what I do. The benefits of this job substantially outweigh the burdens. On the flipside of that, two realizations: If the burdens are overwhelming, part of making good leadership choices is deciding what to change.
The other part of that is that love takes a while. There might be the enthusiasm that comes with the so-called “love at first sight,” but that never lasts long. To truly love something is to work at it and to learn it and to let it become you and to let you become it. So yes, do what you love, but learn how to think carefully about it and be prepared to work at it, because love takes time.