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Jadrien Ellison ’02 is performing arts director for Children’s Aid Society

By Megan Zaroda ’07

Out of his New Jersey home, an eight-year-old co-produced a radio show, 839 Hot Beat, with his sister. Three years later, he took center stage in his elementary school play, playing a preacher who caught the Holy Ghost. His childhood swirled with music, dance, and storytelling.

Today, Jadrien Ellison ’02 empowers New York City’s needy students to discover the same joy the arts brought him in boyhood.

“Only now as an adult can I fully appreciate how much of an outlet performing really became for me,” Ellison says. “Today’s school system is far more rigorous than anything I ever experienced at middle school age. More now than ever, it is imperative that today’s students have opportunities to express themselves beyond literacy and mathematics.”

Serving as performing arts director for The Children’s Aid Society, Ellison supervises after-school and summer camps programming for the society’s Washington Heights campus. While the center offers tutoring sessions, Ellison helps students journal their lives, then transform it into performance, such as a testimonial-based homage to the late Michael Jackson.

“The arts are essential to every child’s education,” Ellison says. “Similar to English, math, science, and the other core subjects, the arts are challenging disciplines that can empower all students, not just those who are considered artistically talented, to perform works of art, create their own works, and respondto works of art and the ideas they impart.”

Ellison’s motto that “there are no mistakes” is an adage that has brought him full circle in his educational and professional pursuits. Despite attending a performing arts high school, 16-year-old Ellison matriculated to Lafayette as an electrical and computer engineering major.

“At the time, I was more motivated by earning a ‘respectable’ career as opposed to following my true passion,” he says.

In his five years as a student, he transitioned from engineering to Spanish and eventually to Africana studies. Ellison then spent four years working at the College in its Office of Intercultural Development. From coordinating cultural heritage festivals to guiding youth in the Johns Hopkins summer camp program hosted by Lafayette, he garnered experience in event management and youth development that would play a role in his current position.

“I like to believe that I was brought back because I had unfinished business. There was still a lot to contribute, and a lot more to be gained from Lafayette College,” Ellison says. “And yet, I found myself walking further away from one of my original passions: performing.”

So Ellison traveled to London to earn a master’s in contemporary performance at Brunel University, satisfying the craving for the abroad experience he missed as an undergraduate. In London, Ellison says, he “uncovered a source of creativity that was long suppressed.” The coursework emboldened him to define his own methodology for creation, which culminated in a 45-minute semi-autographical solo performance Ellison wrote, directed, and performed.

Back in the U.S., Ellison has no intentions of withdrawing from the international scene. The self-confessed wanderlust victim has determined to visit 20 countries by his 30th birthday, posing an interesting challenge for 2010. Ultimately, he envisions a dream job where he can lead global creative retreats and cultural study tours for high school students. “I firmly believe that an international experience should become as mandatory as test scores in the American educational system,” he says.

Ellison’s stories are redolent of mentors’ contributions to his growth. For example, he credits former Professor Kofi Opoku for instilling confidence.

“He recognized my talents early on and had nothing but encouraging words to ensure I too would see them for myself,” he says. “He once gave me the courage to perform a dance blindfolded at the annual Kwanzaa celebration under the pretense that I was guided by my ancestors. His wisdom serves protection for me even today.”

For now, Ellison is “itching” to get back on stage or in front of a camera, while he is still young and full of music and dance. Though he doesn’t believe he has had the “grand aha” life moment yet, Ellison says he is charged to utilize the arts “as a vehicle for promoting cross-cultural interaction and understanding. Art is intensely personal. Art is also universal. Whether theater, music, dance, visual art or the spoken word, they are all outlets for the deepest expression of self.”

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