Nikkia Ellis, '13, dived into volunteering her first semester at University of Richmond with an intensity and intentionality seldom seen in other first-year students. Ellis' commitment to serving the community sprang from her personal experience as a participant in a summer-school program for underserved youth.

After third grade, Ellis, a sociology major from Stamford, Conn., enrolled in a summer camp for low-income students run by a private school in New Canaan, Conn. Camp counselors taught academic lessons in the morning and swimming in the afternoons.

"The camp also expanded our minds by offering us trips to Broadway shows, college campuses, and museums," Ellis said.

Ellis attended the camp every summer through eighth grade and then served as a camp counselor every summer through her first year in college.

The summer camp set her on a path that eventually led her to UR, Ellis said.

"A lot of the camp counselors were teachers at the private New Canaan Country School," she said. "Each year, they would choose one or two exceptional kids from the summer camp to attend New Canaan on a scholarship. They chose me during my second summer at the camp.

"New Canaan challenged me and exposed me to new populations that I hadn't met at public school."

Ellis arrived at University of Richmond determined to serve other urban youth in a way that would enrich them academically and personally as she had been enriched. 

Build It, a neighborhood-based civic-engagement initiative coordinated by the University's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), provided Ellis the perfect service opportunity. She became a member of the Build It student-leadership team and began volunteering twice a week with the Youth Life Foundation of Richmond, a Build It nonprofit community partner that offers an after-school program and a summer camp to underserved urban children.

Three years later, Ellis is still volunteering as a tutor and mentor with Youth Life.

In an effort to learn about different program models for low-income children and youth, Ellis, who became a Bonner Scholar this year, has also volunteered at a variety of other sites, including a Richmond public middle school and two other nonprofit after-school programs associated with the CCE's Richmond Families Initiative.

At the urging of Build It program manager Cassie Price, Ellis continued her exploration of the nonprofit sector by participating in the Social Innovation Program (SIP), a six-week summer institute based in Washington, D.C. SIP encourages students to use entrepreneurial approaches to address civic challenges in the nonprofit, public, and private sectors.

Ellis attended SIP classes on topics ranging from business skills to nonprofit law to entrepreneurship. She worked on consulting projects for nonprofits, including one instance in which she served as team leader on a project teaching technology to homeless and low-income citizens.

"The Social Innovation Program opened me up to a great network of like-minded people," Ellis said. "I became interested in getting a graduate degree in nonprofit management."

Ultimately, Ellis remains committed to realizing her long-time dream of heading a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of underserved urban children and families.

"As a mentor, I can help children with their academics, but not their home life," Ellis said. "That's what I want to do with my nonprofit.

"A lot of issues we face in our society today — high rates of incarceration and poor education, for example — stem from the family. If we could stabilize the family, a lot of these other issues would go away."

In particular, Ellis envisions her nonprofit working to prevent teen pregnancy and offering support services for teen parents and their children.

She understands the importance of building trusting relationships if a nonprofit is to succeed in its work. "You can't come in as an outsider wagging your finger," Ellis said. "You have to be a part of a community."