Served: City Year New York 2009-2010 on the Alcoa team at PS 48
Current position: Tufts University student and Co-Founder of ULink
Fun fact: I’m going to be a part of the Millennial Train Project this summer!
City Year Boston (CYB): What first attracted you to City Year?
Phillip Ellison (PE): I was writing a high school thesis as a senior project, about nonprofits' market success compared to for-profits. Part of that process was an internship component, and I got connected to City Year New York’s recruitment department. […] I saw the opportunity to give back and the platform for service, and that really interested me. I thought that I might want to do it after college, but I ended up taking a different path to get to City Year.
CYB: Describe your transition from City Year to your current career.
PE: I thought from my experience serving with City Year that I would do it after college, but then I had to drop out of Penn State because of a death in the family and a lack of healthcare. I did some odd jobs and manual labor, and then I joined City Year. After City Year, I was placed at Green City Forest through Mayor Bloomberg’s office and the NYC Office of Service and had a tremendous experience, seeing how a national service startup worked on a ground level. Then I served with Citizen Schools in Harlem, near my own neighborhood, while going to community college. It was hectic but really expanded my world view through mentorship and academics. I was really involved in community college and was a student senator, then got involved with politics in the real world. I interned at the Obama office in Chicago and became a field organizer. Then, with a fellow City Year alum, I created an advocacy organization called Young People 4 Change [focused on] civic engagement and awareness. Ultimately we raised around $11,000 for Obama and activated young professionals in New York (many of whom were of color) to volunteer and be engaged. After that, a mentor of mine connected me with the founder of Girls Who Code [who was running a campaign for NYC Public Advocate] and I got to learn more about entrepreneurship on her campaign. Then I realized it was time to go back to school to leverage those experiences and explore social entrepreneurship, and I was accepted as a nontraditional student at Tufts University, where I am now.
CYB: What is your current job and title? What do you do in this role?
PE: I’m finishing up at Tufts, and I’m also a co-founder of ULink, an education tech startup and social venture in the education space, particularly community college. I founded it with another City Year alum, Parisa Esmaili, and a friend from community college. We all experienced community college firsthand, either as a student or a professional. Now we’re focused on trying to innovate and bring opportunity into the community college system to help students.
About half of post-secondary students are in community college, and most are lower income, nonwhite, and (in certain cities) more likely to be immigrants. Though 81% say they want a 4 year degree, only 17% are able to receive one in 6 years. ULink brings emerging technology and human capital into that space. We provide success coaches to close the advisor/student gap, support the college discovery process, and leverage technology to nudge students towards the completion of their community college degree and transfer to a 4 year university. Our first project is a mobile app for Roxbury Community College.
CYB: What do you find most meaningful about your job?
PE: Finding a way to leverage technology and business in a way that’s focused on social impact and supporting students who might not have had the same opportunities and resources that we did as a team. So the opportunity to help students navigate and find their paths to success is really rewarding. Trying to innovate in large bureaucratic system is a daunting yet exciting challenge to work on. Also, just working with really inspiring people on an early stage idea is really humbling.
CYB: How did City Year prepare you for this position/role?
PE: At every stage of every stage of the transition, City Year was helpful. City Year challenged me—it was a difficult year; I had success but also failed. That’s a crucial lesson, what is failure and how do you learn from it. Second, City Year set the foundation to be a collaborative leader and work across skill sets, work styles, and backgrounds, and that’s fundamental. Third, City Year gave me the different positions, activities, and experiences to model my entrepreneurial skill set.
CYB: How do you see the City Year alumni community fitting into the ULink vision?
PE: We have such a diverse group of City Year alumni, and I definitely hope to leverage that. We’re seeking to raise money to help us build the mobile app for students, and alumni can donate to the gofundme. City Year alumni who are interested in our mission and can contribute entrepreneurial or strategic support, we’d welcome that too!