Against the Odds
Leon Ellison wore a pair of Air Jordan shoes the day he became the first person to earn a doctorate from Lindsey Wilson College.
Wearing the sports shoes fulfilled a promise he made to himself when he was in high school.
“As a kid, Jordans were a sign of success in my community,” said Ellison, who is a Cincinnati native. “If you wore Jordans, everyone liked you. You were the popular guy or you had money and a sense of prestige.”
Growing up in poverty, Ellison lived in one of the most low-income, high-crime neighborhoods of Cincinnati. His family didn’t have the money to supply buy him the basic essentials for school, much less for an expensive pair of sneakers.
“My sisters and I grew up in a really rough situation, and we didn’t have a lot. They called me ‘little dirty Leon’ in school because I didn’t have the Jordans and all the stuff everybody else had,” said Ellison. “I went to work one summer. It was my first job. I was determined I would use the money I made to buy new school clothes and more importantly, a new pair of Jordans.
“I remember getting my first check. I’ll never forget, it was for $169. I walked into the house, and my mother was washing the dishes and she was crying. I didn’t know why, so I asked her what was wrong. My stepfather told her I needed to give up my checks for the whole summer to help pay bills. Every check that I got I had to give up.
“I get to work one day, I remember it was on a Monday, and in walks another kid working the program with me and he had on a new sweatsuit and a fresh pair of Jordans. I was so angry and jealous of the boy -- so from that point I plotted my revenge on the kid for the rest of the summer. The last day of work, I was going to follow him home and beat him up and take his Jordans. He knew what I was going to do, because while we were walking he began to cry and I started to feel bad about what I was planning.
“I didn’t do it, but it was a turning point for me. I told myself, I’m never going to buy or wear a pair of Jordans until I reached my goal.’ So today (graduation day) was my first day ever wearing a pair of Jordans.”
On Dec. 15, Ellison was the first graduate of Lindsey Wilson’s Doctorate of Philosophy in Counselor Education & Supervision Program. It was the first Ph.D. to be awarded in the College’s 115-year history.
When Ellison’s accomplishments are added up, earning a doctorate seems like an obvious outcome. But his road to success was never a certainty. It was filled with obstacles that would stop most in their tracks as his youth was a blur of stress, chaos and trauma.
“I had a lot of anger as a teenager,” he said. “I had been through so much physical and emotional abuse in my childhood. I graduated high school with a .97 GPA. I did six years of high school. I was expelled from high school twice for 80 days each. The last expulsion was because I smoked (marijuana) in class while the teacher was teaching because I was just so angry. I was 18 -years -old when I did that. The principal of my high school let me back in school when really he shouldn’t have.”
Ellison entered the U.S. Army after high school as a way to escape his volatile environment and dangerous community.
“The military changed me, and I owe that to my first drill sergeant,” he said. “He asked me a very important question: ‘How long are you going to keep running?’ That question and his response to my bad behavior was so different than I had expected -- it saved my life.”
Ellison said he always knew he wanted to earn a college degree. So after the Army, he immediately enrolled in Cincinnati State Technical & Community College. He soon graduated with his first degree — an associate’s in education.
“I was working as an in-school suspension teacher where I was also the head coach of the boys’ high school basketball team,” said Ellison. “Most of our young men in the inner city don’t know how to respond to certain things or have the skills to work through certain issues. I realized I was doing as much counselor work as coaching and my level of empathy was much higher because I had been through what a lot of these people were dealing with. I could hear those stories of dysfunction and trauma and not crumble.”
LWC’s human services and counseling program was a perfect fit for Ellison because it offers classes at his community college. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he went on to earn his master’s degree in 2013.
“The LWC community campus program in Cincinnati was huge for me because I had to work,” he said. “No one’s going to give me anything. It would’ve been hard for me to remain employed and go to class throughout the week. The weekend program helped me out. I was able to work full-time throughout the week and go to school on the weekend.”
The doctorate program in counselor education and supervision at LWC launched in 2014. Ellison knew that was his next challenge, but he was also intimidated.
“I can remember my first class. I was with all of these accomplished professors, some of them I had quoted in papers,” he said. “And then there were the other seven members of my cohort who were very intelligent, -- and I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I’m supposed to be here.’ But it pushed me. I knew for me to get through this I would need to step it up and push harder.”
Ellison quickly proved that he not only belonged in the program, but had the skills to be an exemplary student for it.
“Successful doctoral studies in counseling requires persistence, commitment and the ability to master the technical apparatus of the domains of teaching, research, leadership and advocacy,” said Professor of Counseling & Human Development Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt who served as one of Ellison’s lead advisors. “Leon did all this and more. Some days it wore me out just trying to catch up to him.”
Ellison’s dissertation focused on parenting and how the socioeconomic factor of social status affects parental efficacy.
“I wanted to see how different factors influenced parents and caused parents to feel less efficacious,” he said. “Additionally, I wanted to learn how parents who do not feel effective respond to children with behavioral issues.”
LWC Director of Counselor Education & Supervision Jeffrey Parsons said Ellison’s inside knowledge of the daily hardships encountered by inner-city children gave him the drive to learn more.
“Leon has been consistent in his focus within the program,” said Parsons. “He has overcome many challenges in his life. I think those life experiences provided him with the level of tenacity necessary to complete a doctoral degree. He is also extremely passionate about parenting issues and mentoring of African American youth. I think his commitment in this area has sustained him with a clear vision for how he wants to apply his agree after graduation.”
Ellison has already published two books. The first was a book of poetry, Through It All My Silent Cries Ended, a detailed account of his childhood experiences narrated from his perspective. He co-authored the second, Why Are We So Angry?, It takes a look at inner-city kids and the anger and aggression that is pervasive throughout this group of adolescents.
His third book goes hand-in-hand with his doctoral work.
“I’m currently writing a children’s book about a middle school kid who’s behavior changed because of bullying and his social environment,” he said. “The book is intended to help parents understand their middle school aged kids and why they respond certain ways.”
Ellison hopes to use his doctorate degree to change the conversation in his community. He wants to help others to realize that success is a choice and for some, it takes a greater amount of perseverance to beat the odds.
“Someone once asked me, if I could go back in my life, would I change my story all together? And the answer is no, I wouldn’t. Because then I would not have the experiences or the opportunity to tell the story that I’m telling today to help other people overcome and rise above,” he said.
Ellison has made many appearances as a motivational speaker in hopes of inspiring others with his story of resiliency and determination. He plans to apply for faculty positions at colleges and universities in the Cincinnati area. But first, he is looking forward to one more major event in his life.
“In 2020, I’ll be blessed to watch two of my three sons graduate from college,” he said. “I don’t think it gets much better than that, I’m really proud of them.”