Student Spotlight: Ellis Clark ’23

Senior International and Public Affairs concentrator Ellis Clark created a foundation to help improve standardized test scores of Detroit public school students.


Detroit, Michigan


International and Public Affairs

Senior International and Public Affairs (IAPA) concentrator Ellis Clark says he was drawn to public policy early in life because of the environment he grew up in. "I'm from Detroit," he said, "and in growing up there, I was impacted by all that the city has been through in parallel with my life." Specifically, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy with an estimated debt of $18–20 billion in 2013 when Clark was 12 years old.

"Any kid that grows up in that environment," said Clark, "ends up being a little more attuned to policy and how government functions. When you don't have things everyone takes for granted—we didn't have streetlights for a couple of years—it definitely makes you think more about how the government should work for people."

Clark says he was initially attracted to Brown because of the Open Curriculum. "There was no other school like Brown that allowed me to have that freedom that I knew I wanted," he said. Clark said he chose the IAPA concentration because "I love American electoral politics and the whole machinery of campaigns and elections. But I'm also fascinated by diplomacy and international affairs and the ways that countries and other actors work with and deal with one another," he said.

While growing up in a bankrupt city lacking many essential services is hardly ideal, Clark says it did instill a certain "do-it-yourself" mindset in him. "I think that's a common Detroit ethos," Clark said, "if you want something done, you understand you might just have to do it yourself."

At 13 years old, Clark wasn't sure what he wanted to do, but he knew he wanted to do something. "So I googled 'how do you start a non-profit' and just went ahead and did it," he said. "I knew I wanted some kind of formal vehicle that I could use to enact the change that I wanted to see in the city and help my community in a structured way, so I launched the Ellis Clark Foundation in January of 2015," he said.

It wasn't long before Clark identified what he wanted to do with his foundation. "One thing I recognized in eighth grade," he said, "was that I happened to be pretty good at taking standardized tests." So Clark launched a peer-to-peer test tutoring program for Detroit public school students. "I recognized that standardized tests can be a barrier to equity in education," said Clark, "and otherwise bright kids in Detroit schools didn't have access to as many [test-taking] resources as kids in other areas." 

"The city has a lot of scholarship money for students from Detroit to go to places like the University of Michigan, which is one of the best schools in America," Clark explained. "But you need a good SAT score to access that funding. So I decided I wanted to offer standardized test prep for free in a way that didn't patronize or demoralize students," he said.

Clark started offering his tutoring services in the summer of 2016 and has continued to provide it every year since. "I found that it ended up being a really great success," he said. Clark said he believes the peer-to-peer model was the key to success. "Hearing it from me, someone who looks like them and is the same age as them, it just came off differently than going to a Kumon or Kaplan if they had the resources to do so, or from trying to learn it from a teacher or a guidance counselor in the school."

Clark said that, to date, he has tutored more than 50 students. He said his goal when he started was to raise SAT scores by an average of 400 points. "At first, I was only seeing 100 to 200 point increases," he said, "but recently, as I've fine-tuned it and figured out what was and was not working, I've started seeing those 400 point increases."

As for his time at Brown, Clark said, "I feel like I've gotten so much out of [it]. I've taken incredible classes and had incredible professors, and with the advent of IAPA, I found a concentration that speaks equally to both of my areas of passion. And the resources we have at Watson are phenomenal." Clark said he is particularly grateful for the opportunities for experiential learning Watson has afforded him. "I did internships all through college in politics and finance," he said.

After graduation, Clark plans to move to San Francisco, where he has accepted a position as a community development banking analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co. While he will be living far from his beloved hometown, Clark says he is determined to stay connected to Detroit. "[JPMorgan Chase] is committed to investing in cities, which is really important to me. They are the biggest bank in the Detroit metro area and are committed to investing in the city," he said. Despite the challenges facing banking today with several recent failures, Clark said he is excited to embark on his next adventure, addressing housing and resource insecurity in underserved communities across the country.