Ellis Phillips-Gallucci ’23 was anxious about coming to college. So, as any incoming freshman would do, “I went on Google and asked my parents about what I could read to get prepared,” Phillips-Gallucci told me. “Whenever you Google the great books, it’s always going to have Plato and Aristotle, so I ended up reading quite a bit of philosophy [that summer], both primary and secondary texts.”
As a result, Phillips-Gallucci came in quite ready for his first meeting with his advisor, Associate Professor of Philosophy Rafeeq Hasan.
“I was blown away by how much he had read,” Hasan said. “I don’t have many students who sit in my office and tell me they prepare [for college] by reading very difficult, dense, philosophical texts.”
Phillips-Gallucci’s extensive preparation for college comes from his genuine love for learning, which has contributed to his philosophical growth academically and career aspirations to educate others.
But Phillips-Gallucci’s evolution is not just intellectual: He has celebrated tremendous achievements on the track in his progression from walk-on to nationally-ranked, record-setting hurdler.
Journey to Amherst
Windham, where Phillips-Gallucci grew up, is a majority-Latino community, surrounded on the east by sprawling, rural Connecticut and surrounded on the west by built-up cities.
“It’s a place that has changed a lot since I’ve grown up. It was known not to be a great spot, and it was one of the lower-income schools in the state,” Phillips-Gallucci said. “But it has definitely improved its economy and developed a lot more. The school system used to be the worst in the state public school system, so it’s gotten a lot better.”
In fact, Phillips-Gallucci and his parents, who are both professors at the University of Connecticut, were part of a Connecticut Supreme Court case challenging the state’s ability to provide an adequate education for students, particularly disadvantaged students who were being left behind. The case, which unfolded over 12 years, argued that Windham, along with other majority-POC schools in the state, did not receive as much funding as other districts, and that the educator turnover rate was worrisomely high. In 2016, a lower-court judge ordered the state to reform its educational policies to be more equitable, but a 2018 Connecticut Supreme Court decision countered the ruling.
“In a lot of ways, early on, I questioned the education system, not only in Connecticut, but more generally,” Phillips-Gallucci said.
But even though the teachers “were in and out the door every few years, they were always really caring” Phillips-Gallucci said. “And I learned as much about life and American society as I could through books.” These books were not about political philosophy — at least not yet. Phillips-Gallucci read “Percy Jackson,” “Harry Potter,” “Sherlock Holmes,” and “A Series of Unfortunate Events” at least three times each.
Aside from being studious, Phillips-Gallucci was extremely energetic, constantly playing games — from chess to basketball — with his younger brother and older sister.
“We didn’t have cable, and I didn’t have a phone until I was in high school, so it was a lot of outdoor play and a fair amount of reading,” Phillips-Gallucci said.
Phillips-Gallucci’s father, who is from the United Kingdom, fostered his son’s competitive spirit. His father is the reason Phillips-Gallucci started playing soccer from the day he could walk, so naturally, he assumed he would continue to pursue soccer in college.
Phillips-Gallucci actually didn’t know about Amherst until November of his senior year. The counselor from an agency that provided services to his school had attended Amherst, and because it was a free application Phillips-Gallucci sent in his materials.
“There was this website where you could put in your GPA and SAT and you could see what percentage you had of getting into a certain school,” Phillips-Gallucci said. “I did it for Amherst and it said I had a 1 percent chance of getting in, so I was like: ‘Okay, I’m going to UConn, because my parents work there, and I’ll try to walk on to the soccer team.’”
After getting into Amherst, Phillips-Gallucci immediately reached out to the soccer coach to try out for the team. He didn’t make it. Little did he know at the time that this would open the door his later, nationally-ranked performances on track.
There were a lot of track athletes in his orientation group, and because he had run for two years in high school, Phillips-Gallucci emailed Head Track Coach Steve Rubin a few weeks later.
“I came in a bit casually, but at the same time, I wasn’t aware of how intense [Rubin] was. He definitely tested me,” Phillips-Gallucci said. “Having friends on the team and structure to my days was very helpful to getting situated the first semester.”
Educating Himself: Reading Against the Grain
During his first semester at Amherst, Phillips-Gallucci took “Philosophical Questions” with Assistant Professor of Philosophy Lauren Leydon-Hardy, which cemented his passion for philosophy. Phillips-Gallucci felt prepared for the class as a result of his summer reading, and his interest grew under Leydon-Hardy’s guidance.
The class focused on free will and epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Phillips-Gallucci said these topics represented his first stage of philosophical exploration.
One of his favorite classes was “Freedom and Responsibility” with Leydon-Hardy, which he took in his freshman spring after “Philosophical Questions” because it had piqued his interest in free will. A piece that he is the most proud of from college, to this day, was a response to Leydon-Hardy’s dissertation, a rigorous intellectual undertaking that he never thought he was capable of before college.
Leydon-Hardy’s dissertation was about the unique type of epistemic infringement and lack of free will in predatory grooming. Epistemic harm means that someone’s capacity for knowledge is taken away from them, and because knowledge is power, they are left powerless, Phillips-Gallucci explained. During our interview, Phillips-Gallucci pulled out his computer to make sure that he was accurately summarizing Leydon-Hardy’s argument, and shared with me the Google document of his response.
In an extensive, clear paper co-written with Jaden White ’23, Phillips-Gallucci expanded this critique beyond interpersonal relationships to relationships between the media and viewers. Drawing on Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, Phillips-Gallucci said that “the media can infringe upon people’s epistemic agency by providing false accounts of reality.”
When the pandemic hit, fewer philosophy courses were available, so Phillips-Gallucci turned to courses in sociology or political science, even considering majoring in the departments.
Just like in his summer before college, Phillips-Gallucci read foundational political and sociological texts from thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzche, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and John Locke.
“I came back in the fall of 2020 and was interested in new questions,” Phillips-Gallucci said. “And this aligned pretty well with my interest in Black studies.”
Phillips-Gallucci served as historian for Black Student Union (BSU) his sophomore year, and wrote weekly pieces about the college’s racial history in the BSU newsletter.
He was also part of #ReclaimAmherst, a racial-justice movement spearheaded by the Black Student Union and the Black Amherst Speaks Instagram account, which culminated in a 16-page program outlining a set of institutional demands. The BSU believed such reforms were necessary to address Black students’ claims to the institution and create an environment more responsive to the needs of students of color.
As part of Phillips-Gallucci’s involvement in #ReclaimAmherst, he was interviewed by The Student and asked if he wanted to write a column.
“I was like, ‘Sure, but that’s a lot of responsibility,’” Phillips-Gallucci said. “So I asked my friends Sirus Wheaton ’23 and Sika Essegbey ’23 if they’d like to co-write it with me. That first semester, we co-authored a column called ‘Black Perspective.’ We covered whatever interested us — there wasn’t too much structure to it, touching on Black history and the Black history of Amherst.”
The next semester, Phillips-Gallucci began writing regularly for the news section, which he said improved his writing and relationship to Amherst. Phillips-Gallucci covered the annual City Streets Festival, an event that brings in food and culture from around the world, at a time where two important movements from his time at college converged: labor struggles and the pandemic.
“It was the first entire campus event with no masks and few precautions. It was a celebratory time,” Phillips-Gallucci said. “But at the same time, there was a student protest of the injustices that the Val workers and Amherst workers in general were experiencing. Those two things made it an article which I look back on as important.”
In addition to writing collaboratively, Phillips-Gallucci makes space in his relationships to share his love of learning, and continued to do so during the pandemic.
“[A few friends and I] were in a group chat together, talking about being bored, and then Ellis sent a copy of the Communist Manifesto,” said Kelechi Eziri ’23. “He was like, ‘Here’s some reading for y’all.’”
Hasan, Phillips-Gallucci’s academic advisor, emphasized that he is an intellectual mentor to others.
“I had students who showed up to my philosophy classes who said they didn’t really think they were going to take a philosophy class but were convinced to do so by Ellis,” Hasan said.
Through taking more philosophy classes, Phillips-Gallucci’s interests have converged with those of his advisor: ethics and political philosophy, and what it means to be truly free in the world. Phillips-Gallucci considers this to be the current stage in his philosophical journey.
“When it comes to ethics and political philosophy, analyzing and penetrating the implicit beliefs behind whatever preposition someone’s making is something I’m very good at doing,” Phillips-Gallucci said. “That comes from my intellectual progression and reading Nietzche, Freud and Marx — all of these people who had suspicions of dominant narratives.”
Hasan said that Phillips-Gallucci is “really good at reading against the grain.”
When the class read Robert Nozick, a right-wing, pro-property thinker, Phillips-Gallucci “read beyond surface politics and found surprising areas of convergence between Nozick and Karl Marx,” Hasan said.
“Ellis makes extremely interesting points, in such a soft-spoken manner … He is extremely congenial,” Hasan said. “Ellis is genuinely interested in the views of other people, even those who he disagrees with. That’s a difficult skill and it would be good for American society in general to have more of it.”
Phillips-Gallucci had the opportunity to put his beliefs into practice when he worked at Mosaic Mental Health, an institution in the Bronx for disadvantaged communities in the summer of 2022.
“There’s an ethics to how people are treated. There’s a big connection between philosophy and teaching and the care I was doing at the hospital,” he said. “Philosophy can allow you to communicate across different social, historical and economic backgrounds because you’re taught to confront a variety of beliefs.”
Hasan added that Phillips-Gallucci is a passionate advocate for both himself and others.
“It was as a result of a very powerfully argued letter that he wrote to the [philosophy] department that we actually changed our course requirements during Covid-19,” Hasan said. “He made a very powerful case for the way in which Covid-19 has affected people from different economic backgrounds in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. I showed the email he sent to my mother, who is a lawyer, who said, ‘That young man will go far.’”
Team Bonding: Success On and Off the Track
At this year’s track banquet, Phillips-Gallucci delivered a senior speech, in which. he joked that Rubin never clarified that he had actually made it on the team.
“But it was clear since October of our freshman year that everyone cared for him like a brother,” Eziri said. “Fast-forward to our senior year, and he became a team captain. It’s a perfect representation of Ellis’ evolution on the team into a leader … from walk-on to team captain.”
In terms of on-paper achievement, Phillips-Gallucci went from never having jumped a hurdle to breaking the school record in the 400-meter hurdle event. He is currently tied for third nationally in Division III.
“The memories I have with the track team are some of the ones I hold most dear,” Phillips-Gallucci said. “Whether that be NESCACS this season … or winning Little Threes my freshman year for the first time in thirty years, they are fond memories of mine.”
When Eziri and Phillips-Gallucci lived in New York this past summer, they would sneak onto Dewitt Clinton High School’s fenced-off track to stay in shape. That fitness carried through to this season.
Eziri said he values his relationship with Phillips-Gallucci both as a workout partner, and as a conversation partner.
“We would spend a lot of time on the balcony [of Phillips-Gallucci’s apartment complex] watching the stars, and just talking for hours about random things … life, ideology, the difficulties of track and school,” Eziri said. “I’m going to miss talking to him. He’s one of the most empathetic, understanding individuals I’ve met.”
Eziri added that Phillips-Gallucci has spent countless hours helping him with his thesis, and “prodded at the ideological assumptions that I wasn’t looking at entirely.”
“He asks the questions that no one else is asking and is trying to understand on a different level than other people,” Eziri said.
Eziri mentioned Phillips-Gallucci in the acknowledgements of his thesis, even though, Eziri joked, he didn’t end up using the title that Phillips-Gallucci suggested.
After Amherst: Educating Others
With two professors as his parents, Phillips-Gallucci said that education came naturally to him. Next year, Phillips-Gallucci will be a teaching fellow at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership in Washington, D.C., Phillips-Gallucci will co-teach an ethics course, shadow other teachers, and advise students.
In the wake of 9/11, the school’s founder, Noah Bopp, established the semester-long program for globally-minded high school juniors. With locations in London, England, and Johannesburg, South Africa, the school has a strong international focus, Phillips-Gallucci said. A few of his friends attended the school, he added.
“Education is something that has been important for my own development and something which I felt that kids at my school weren’t as fortunate to have,” Phillips-Gallucci said. “I hope that by being an educator, I can help people.”
This time, Phillips-Gallucci feels more prepared for the transition into teaching than he did the summer before college, but who knows what new books he still might turn to for guidance. Or maybe Phillips-Gallucci’s students will be the ones toting books by Plato and Aristotle to their first advising meetings.
Either way, these students will be lucky to have Phillips-Gallucci as their teacher.
“I wish that everyone had an Ellis in their lives,” Eziri said. “He is one of the most empathetic, understanding individuals I’ve ever met.”