Nico Ellis, '23, introduced speaker Anne Applebaum at the Jepson Leadership Forum on March 15, 2022.

Nico Ellis, '23, introducing featured speaker Anne Applebaum at the Jepson Leadership Forum on March 15, 2022

Nico Ellis, '23

February 2, 2023

Exploring democratic social policies and governance 

Although her English was imperfect, Nico Ellis, ’23, had no trouble understanding the woman’s anguish. The widowed mother of two, an immigrant from West Africa, called the Legal Services of New Jersey to request help in applying for guardianship of her son, who was about to turn 18. His intellectual disabilities prevented him from caring for himself, the mother explained between sobs. Ellis connected her to the appropriate resources.

This was the kind of call he often fielded this past summer while interning with Legal Services of New Jersey, a nonprofit that provides civil legal aid to people who are economically disadvantaged. He connected clients to attorneys, collaborated on writing briefs, and spearheaded legal research on a variety of medical issues. The Jepson School of Leadership Studies awarded him a Burrus Fellowship to support his academically grounded Jepson internship with the nonprofit.

“The volume of cases referred to us spoke to the entrenched problems in our health care policy,” said the senior from Pennington, New Jersey. “Listening to people who often don’t feel heard in our society was rewarding and enlightening.”

The internship fed his interest in social policy, specifically health policy, said Ellis, who is majoring in leadership studies and political science. “I think about how we can reimagine our urban spaces in ways that positively affect the social determinants of health in low-income communities,” he said.

He added that he is also interested in the impact of Supreme Court rulings on social policies and governance. For his political science senior honors thesis, advised by Dr. Jennifer Bowie, he is using a quantitative software tool to examine former Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s use of emotive language in her dissenting opinions. He will present this research at the Pi Sigma Alpha Political Science Honor Society Student Conference in Washington, D.C., later this month.

“Though I didn't confirm my primary hypothesis that RBG's use of emotive language changed after she became the ‘Notorious RBG,’” Ellis said, “my research did show that she used more emotive language in salient cases, such as civil and women's rights cases."

For the past two years, he has also grappled with social policy, as well as economic and political thought, as a McDowell Institute Student Fellow. Fellows bring their diverse viewpoints to bear when reading and discussing texts related to contemporary issues. “I've loved that the fellows program provides space outside a typical classroom setting for critical reflection on important issues,” he said.

The highlight of his undergraduate experience may well have been his March 15, 2022, interview with journalist, democracy champion, and Russia-Ukraine expert Anne Applebaum a month after Russia invaded Ukraine, Ellis said. The interview and his subsequent introduction of Applebaum as the Jepson Leadership Forum speaker later that evening represented an exciting culmination of his study of the future of democracy in the course “The Democratic Prospect,” taught by Dr. Kenneth Ruscio.

“I was honored that Dr. Ruscio selected me for this opportunity. It was really cool to interact with someone of Anne Applebaum’s caliber at such a historic moment.”

Update: In April, The Jepson School named Ellis a 2023 Jepson Scholar, awarding him an all-expenses-paid scholarship to attend the University of Oxford, where he will pursue a Master of Science in comparative social policy.