GS Graduate Finds Purpose in Prison, Then Finds Himself at Columbia

James Harvey Elliott II ’23GS found his purpose while in prison and strengthened his professional skills in community college. At Columbia, he discovered something unexpected: himself.

Natalie Jankowski
April 23, 2023

When James Harvey Elliott II ’23GS first met Associate Dean Sara Remedios, who directs academic and learning initiatives at Columbia GS, she asked him a question that gave him pause: what do you want to do?

At the time, Elliott, a proud father and returning citizen, was in community college and had his sights on attending the Columbia University School of General Studies to continue pursuing his passion for prison reform. The various, and sometimes competing, demands in his life have shaped, and continue to shape, who Elliott is—and also what he set out to accomplish at GS. His ambitions are high, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

After suppressing some nerves, he shared with Remedios: “I want to be a Supreme Court justice.”

Her response both surprised and inspired Elliott, especially having just met her moments earlier: “If it’s not you, it's going to be someone else sitting in the classroom with you,” she said. “Why not you? Why can’t it be you? This is where it happens.”

This anecdote sticks with Elliott for many reasons, but mostly for Remedios’ immediate, resolute belief in him and what he could achieve at GS, which helped him not only build his own courage, but also begin to truly believe it himself. “That was an incredible thing for me,” recalled Elliott. “That gave me confidence.”

Before arriving at Columbia, Elliott’s life had taken multiple tumultuous turns, from two failed attempts at community college and selling drugs to a seven-year prison sentence. While incarcerated, Elliott reluctantly enrolled in a distance-learning program that allowed him to study from prison. In a short time, he began to thrive in his studies; the thirst for knowledge and motivation to learn growing rapidly alongside his burgeoning passion for prison reform. His purpose was starting to emerge.

Upon an early release from prison for good behavior, Elliott enrolled at Delaware Technical Community College (DTCC) and immersed himself in his studies and the community, which included being elected International President of Phi Theta Kappa, the international community college honor society. After graduating with a dual associate degree in human services and drug and alcohol counseling, Elliott continued to work with DTCC and the American Civil Liberties Union to help increase access to higher education in American prisons. During this time, he honed his professional development skills, learned to network, and continued to speak passionately about his personal experiences, inspiring many others along the way.

Elliott likened this part of his journey to cookie crumbs, with a few falling here and there, leading him down new and different paths—finding his purpose while studying in prison, learning the skills needed to succeed in community college—and ultimately leading him to 116th Street and Broadway. 

When Elliott arrived at GS, however, he discovered something else rather unexpectedly: himself. The journey toward self-discovery wasn’t linear or easy to navigate, but that didn’t faze him. Classes like Professor Robert Gooding-Williams’s “What is Race?” and Dean Josef Sorett’s “Intro to African American Studies” provided a unique clarity for Elliott, alongside a personal reckoning with his own history, identity, and race. “I understand the world and I understand who I am. I understand why I did what I did,” he said. “I know who James is.”

Inquiring minds wanted to know: “Who is James?”

The question elicited a candid, multifaceted answer from Elliott, layered with identity and race, alongside an avid desire to become the best, most honest version of himself.

“I’m a black man in America. I am someone who is passionate about truth, about prison reform. I’m passionate about education and giving educational opportunities to a wide range of people. I’m a father, I’m a brother, but I think at most, I’m a human,” he said unwaveringly. 

In order to find oneself, one has to have been lost in the first place, something that Elliott can deeply relate to. The internal pursuit of discovering unique facets of himself led him to uncover true confidence. In particular, the confidence to speak his own truth—and speak truth to power.

“The criminal justice system is flawed,” he said. “There are a lot of people in prison who know firsthand that the prison system is broken, but the way that our society is, they don’t listen to them, right? GS giving me an opportunity allows my voice to be amplified, and then I can amplify other people’s voices.”

Elliott’s GS story is a dichotomy of lost and found, with, in his own words, “transformation” and “enlightenment” woven in between. These themes echoed throughout his Columbia journey, from his involvement as a student advocate on the Committee on Instruction (COI) Board to becoming GS’s second consecutive Truman Scholar.

A prestigious scholarship with only an eight-percent selection rate, the Truman Scholarship recognizes students’ exemplary public service work, academic achievement, and leadership, in addition to offering graduate school support in preparation for a career in public service.

“The Truman application was a great process to find myself,” Elliott said.

More than a year in advance of the application deadline, Senior Assistant Dean Glenn Novarr, who mentors GS students on fellowships, guided Elliott through the daunting application process and implored him to further articulate who he was and what he wanted to do. “He just really challenged me to start thinking inside, like ‘okay, you want to do this, but why do you want to do this?’” recalled Elliott. “It was a heck of a process.”

But that process, and what he discovered along the way, is what made the whole experience invaluable, particularly when it came to conveying the “why” from his own story to others. A frequent worry for Elliott over the years has been his felony—and how that would impact future endeavors. Since arriving at Columbia in Fall 2020 and seeing how GS values him and his perspective, he worries less about that now, instead focusing on how he can continue to effect change within GS and beyond.

The GS community is a special place within Columbia, and Elliott cannot help but smile when talking about it. In fact, the community is one of the reasons he came to GS. “I chose it for the community and that’s true times a thousand. That goes to why I'm a Truman Scholar, why I’m a Campbell Award winner, and just why I've been able to do so well in the classroom because it was the right place,” he said. “All of that, three years later, is just a reaffirmation about making the right choice.”

After graduating with a degree in African American and African diaspora studies, Elliott plans to take a year off and potentially intern with a senator in his home state of Delaware while studying for the LSAT and spending time with his daughter. High on Elliott’s list of future pursuits are starting a non-profit that bridges the gap between colleges and prisons, and creating education programs, along with law school or perhaps even politics. “You know, there are just so many things that I think about doing and that I know I'm able to do. Just need to make sure that's what I wanna do,” he said with a laugh. 

Wherever Elliott finds himself beyond Columbia, whether it’s running his own non-profit or sitting on the highest court in the country, you can be sure he’s going to continue carving his own path to get there, and perhaps even find some more cookie crumbs along the way.

“I still think about being a judge one day,” he said, a joyful ambition evident in his voice. “I know wherever I end up, I'm gonna be happy.”