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Freedom to Innovate

Ellis Johnson '18

Ellis Johnson ’18 

Ellis Johnson ’18 (physics, Russian) is an exceptional student, cadet, tour guide and vocalist who’s earning recognition from high places. In November, the U.S. Army named him as one of the top-10 Army cadets in the nation, based on a ranking that takes into account grade point average, performance on advanced training tests, physical fitness and participation in college athletics programs. Johnson also is the recipient of a Department of Defense scholarship that allowed him to study Russian in Narva, Estonia, during the summer after his sophomore year. Below, he discusses the behind-the-scenes work behind those honors, his dream of becoming an Army astronaut and how he seeks out fresh approaches, whether beat-boxing or suggesting new agendas for the Blue Mountain Battalion.


Physics and Russian.

Clubs and organizations:  

Blue Mountain Battalion ROTC, Dtones, Men's Club Volleyball, Liberty Caps (tour guides) and Phi Delta Theta.


Distinguished Military Graduate, Sigma Pi Sigma Physics Honor Society, Order of Omega Greek Honor Society, Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Honor Society and ProjectGO scholarship for international travel.

Favorite book:

Seven Summits by Dick Bass, Frank Wells and Rick Ridgeway.

Favorite movie:

Balto or The Princess Bride (both are absolutely underrated classics).

On choosing a major:

I knew I wanted to focus on a STEM field, and I really thought I would just be making the decision between physics and chemistry here at Dickinson. It wasn’t until I decided to drop Spanish and take Russian on a whim that I was introduced to one of the most amazing departments here on campus. After a few more classes, I declared a second major in Russian as I was deciding to study abroad in Moscow.

Proudest accomplishment so far:

Being a top 10 nationally ranked cadet proved to me that work, unseen or otherwise, will pay off. It was the culmination of years at the gym and in the classroom—and a reminder that I need to keep working to deserve that recognition.

On choosing Dickinson:

I lived in Carlisle for six years before I started school at Dickinson. I spent a long time looking all over the East Coast for a small liberal-arts school that had everything I was searching for. It took most of my senior year in high school before I realized the best place for me was right in front of my eyes.

Favorite place on campus:

The old ROTC house.

Favorite class:

My hands-down favorite class was Introduction to Theoretical Physics with [Associate] Professor [of Physics and Astronomy David] Jackson. It was the hardest academic experience I’ve had to date, but I came out of every class feeling smarter and like I could handle just about anything this school could throw at me. Professor Jackson pushed me to finally start being creative with how I approached problems, and that’s a skill that was worth the 10-page problem sets and late nights in Tome.

As a kid, I wanted to be …

a doctor, until I got to watch a live surgery. I pretty quickly realized I was extremely squeamish around needles, blood, doctors and hospitals in general. I’m still terrified at the prospect of having to visit medical establishments.

Most important thing I’ve learned so far:

There are a million ways to tackle any problem, and sometimes, trying different approaches is as important as the result. I genuinely like solving problems, and while I used to just focus on getting the desired final product, now I have a pretty good time trying to come up with cool ways to get to that outcome. I get a lot of strange looks when I try something weird—beatboxing or pushing a new agenda in ROTC—but I think it’s been a great experience to have the freedom to be creative.

On studying abroad:

I spent eight weeks during the summer in Narva, Estonia, and then spent the fall semester of my junior year in Moscow, Russia. I had an amazing opportunity to fly to Lake Baikal in Siberia in December, where I had some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I went on a two-day dog sledding excursion into the Taiga and jumped into the largest lake in the world a few days before it froze over for the winter. I often think back on just how cool it was to be in that part of the world.

Post-Dickinson plans:

I am heading to Ft. Rucker, Alabama, to attend flight school after I graduate this spring. In a fantasy world, I would love to become an Army astronaut, but I guess we will see how that goes.

Biggest influence:

It’s a little cheesy, but my dad has been my biggest motivator throughout my life. I watch his work ethic and try to match even a fraction of it. He taught me to pursue science and discovery; he pushed me to go on adventures; he inspired me to become an Army officer; and he unknowingly showed me what it means to be a man. I can never thank him enough for all he has done for me.

Favorite quote:

“Adventure is worthwhile in itself.” —Amelia Earhart

Learn more about Johnson's Cadet Command award.

Read more Student Snapshots.


Published January 18, 2018