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Newark Life

Newark native elected to Phi Theta Kappa student leadership post

May 02, 2019 10:42AM ● By J. Chambless

James Elliott (center) at Phi Theta Kappa’s Catalyst Convention in Orlando, Fla.

By Steven Hoffman
Staff Writer

In early April, James Elliott traveled to Phi Theta Kappa’s Catalyst Convention in Orlando, Florida, where he was elected as the new international president—the highest student leadership position in the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

Elliott’s selection to the important post marks another big step in his remarkable journey to redemption—a journey that has taken him from a Delaware prison to a life filled with newfound purpose and promise.

During an interview just days after the Catalyst Convention in April, Elliott reflected on his past and how it has helped shape his present.

Elliott explained that he grew up in Newark and enjoyed a very comfortable, middle class life. He attended private Christian schools throughout his childhood, and went to church with his loving family on Sundays. He played sports. But his life began to change when he became a class clown and troublemaker in middle school. And his life really began to change when he started using and selling drugs in high school.

“I started to enjoy being deviant,” he explained. “My love for sports fell to the side and any academic goals were out the door.”

He transferred to a public high school and his drug problems worsened. He looks back on this time in his life as a very dark time, but things were about to get worse once he left the comforts of high school. He fell into a desperate pattern of selling drugs, using drugs, getting robbed, and robbing others.

The involvement with drugs led, as it so often does, to a costly mistake, and in 2011, Elliott was arrested after he took part in a home invasion with some acquaintances who were looking to steal from a drug dealer. Elliott was sentenced to 7 years in prison.

“Before my incarceration, I did not have a purpose or any direction in life,” Elliott explained. “Much of my time revolved around drugs, selling them or using them. Being incarcerated opened my eyes to all the opportunities I wasted.”

One of the first things that Elliott had to come to terms with was accepting full responsibility for his actions.

Being in prison allowed him to think without the influence of drugs.

“There was a year of processing and self-evaluation,” he explained. “I had been drug-free for a year and my mind was finally clear. I was now faced with the reality of my life. I had nothing in prison, and I had to take this time to find out who I was. I had to find out what my identity was going to be moving forward.”

Elliott started making positive changes in his life while he was in prison. He had the benefit of a good education while he was growing up in Newark, so he started tutoring others who didn’t have the same opportunity. He started working in the prison chapel as the chaplain assistant, which helped him develop a servant’s heart. He started taking online courses through Ohio University to learn about the field of human services.

“During that time,” Elliott explained, “I started taking my education seriously. My academic success since my release has everything to do with these courses. The courses empowered me academically and gave me the confidence that I can succeed in other aspects of my life.”

The newfound focus helped him earn an early release for good behavior after five and a half years in prison. He emerged from prison with a newfound purpose and a very different perspective.

He enrolled at Delaware Technical Community College and worked hard at his studies—in contrast to how he approached education before his incarceration. He earned a spot on the Dean’s List.

Finding employment was a big test because of the felony conviction. His first chance at work came from Panera Bread. He developed a strong work ethic, and was determined to prove that he could be a reliable, consistent employee who would work hard and serve with integrity. He earned numerous Employee of the Month Awards and was soon in line for the company’s management training program.

His carried the lessons he learned while in prison with him every day.

He explained, “The foundation of servitude carried over to my release. When I enrolled at Delaware Tech, I knew serving others was my purpose in life. My leadership foundation that I started in prison carried over to the campus. Not only was I excelling in my classes, I became a student leader on campus.”

He did work on an Alpha Zeta Kappa chapter Honors in Action Project that focused on research regarding the spike in violence in the city of Wilmington. This was an issue that he had already done research on while he was still in prison.

His work at Delaware Tech qualified him for membership in Phi Theta Kappa, which is the world’s largest and most prestigious honor society for two-year college students. There are 250,000 active members and close to 2 million total members in the honor society. The mission of Phi Theta Kappa is to recognize academic achievement of college students and to provide opportunities for them to grow as scholars and leaders.

Elliott said that 2018 was an amazing year for him personally. One of the highlights was becoming the Delaware State president of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, while another was continuing to pursue a dual degree in human services and drug & alcohol counseling at Delaware Tech. But the real highlight of the year was the birth of his daughter, which was a real life-changing experience for him.

His motivation to lead a purposeful life in service to others only grew. His life experiences give him the unique opportunity to help others who find themselves in the broken criminal justice system.

“I want to be an advocate for prison reform,” Elliott explained. “Mass incarceration is a problem, and we are not effectively rehabilitating people so that they can reenter society.”

According to Elliott, education must be a cornerstone for recidivism reduction—that’s one thing that he has learned from his own experiences, and he is a strong believer that educational opportunities are critical for a person to turn his or her life around.

Elliott was able to speak on behalf of the First Step Act, legislation that was cosponsored by U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.). The comprehensive legislation is aimed at reducing crime by helping low-risk inmates prepare to successfully rejoin society through participation in proven recidivism reduction and professional development programs.  It also promotes fairness in prison sentences by adjusting certain mandatory minimum sentences, granting greater discretion for judges in sentencing of low-level, nonviolent drug crimes, and clarifying congressional intent on sentencing enhancements for certain crimes involving firearms. 

Elliott wants to take his message to as many people as possible. During the next year, he will travel extensively to perform the duties as international president for Phi Theta Kappa. He wants to share his own story to show what a person can accomplish when they are given the opportunity. He also plans to continue his studies and earn a law degree so that he can work as a civil rights attorney to help others.

“There are many individuals from different walks of life who are being locked out of mainstream society,” Elliott explained.

Looking back on the journey over the last decade, Elliott said that there were many moments where he doubted himself, but through faith and a lot of hard work he has achieved some of his goals and has established new ones to strive for.

“I never thought I would be where I am today,” he admitted.

Elliott’s mother, Robin Elliott, said that it’s been wonderful seeing her son achieve his goals.

“It’s incredibly impressive the way that he has bounced back,” she explained. “As his mother, I always believed he had it in him. But to see it occur has been overwhelming.”

To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email [email protected].

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