Small town: Big heart

James Sellers learned to ride a unicycle while working as an RA at his dorm

Graduating senior James Sellers credits his chance encounter with a University of Arkansas at Little Rock recruiter for helping him get to where he is today.

Sellers, 22, met UA Little Rock recruiter Louis Scivally at College Day at DeQueen High School four years ago. At the time, Sellers wasn’t sure of the college application process, and Scivally steered him toward scholarship opportunities and connected him with advisors.

After visiting UA Little Rock during a Discover Day, Sellers made up his mind. He enrolled at UA Little Rock in fall 2014, deciding on a chemistry major with a biology minor.

College life was unfamiliar territory to Sellers, who is the first in his immediate family to get a university education.

“When I got here, I really didn’t understand how to college,” he said. “My GPA was decent, but not impressive. Dr. Johanna Lewis, my advisor in CALS [College of Arts, Letters and Sciences], told me I needed to get my act together if I wanted to be a competitive applicant to medical school. She has been a huge influence on me and my future.”

Sellers took Lewis’ advice and got to work. He graduates May 12 with a 3.77 GPA. He also is the recipient of this year’s American Institute of Chemistry Outstanding Graduating Senior Award and has been accepted into the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Medicine Class of 2022.  

In four years, Sellers has not only mastered the academic side of college but has also seized leadership opportunities that have helped him evolve from a teenager focused on self to a young adult focused on service.

“Who I was coming in and who I am going out are two different people,” he said. “I don’t want to think of where I’d be if I didn’t come here. I’ve loved every moment of being at UA Little Rock.  It has prepared me for the difficult higher education I’m about to go into, and I know what it takes to succeed. I know how to handle a tough course load and do it well.”

Sellers, who grew up in Gillham (population: 188), was a bit reserved when he arrived on campus, but he quickly became friends with the students living on West Hall’s fourth floor. During his first semester, the Chancellor’s Leadership Corps hosted a Boys Will Be Girls pageant as a fundraiser. Sellers was a good sport and donned a dress.  

“That definitely got me out of my shell,” he recalled, “and something so goofy was the catalyst for the start of many good friendships.”

Later that year, he became the university’s Trojan Man mascot and traveled with the team to the NCAA tournament in Tempe, Arizona. He also started a new student organization dedicated to hanging out with friends and meeting new ones.

“I was walking across campus with friends and thought ‘What if we just sat around in lawn chairs at random spots on campus?’” he said. Thus, the Lawn Chair Club was born, and Sellers, as the founder, became “Grandpappy James.” At the end of his freshman year, Sellers received the Campus Living Resident of the Year and Chancellor’s Leadership Corps Male of the Year awards.

He became even more involved as a sophomore, joining Student Government Association, Pi Kappa Alpha, and serving as director of involvement for the Maroon Mob. He has been a part of the Chancellor’s Leadership Corps and Science Scholars Program and started tutoring students in chemistry. He also became a resident assistant for the following three years – two years in West Hall and one year in South Hall.

“Being an RA has been the highlight of my undergrad experience because it has taught me that college isn’t about me. It’s about us,” he said. “It taught me how to care about other people. We’ve had lot of fun, goofy times but also serious moments, and through it all, it has helped me become a leader and a mentor.”

By the middle of his sophomore year, Sellers was feeling some burn-out and backed off many of his extracurricular activities.

“I got so busy and realized I was doing a whole lot of things half-way,” he said.

He began focusing on medical school applications and preparing for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). He tracked his study time, logging 310 hours of MCAT preparation. His disciplined approach paid off, but not without a bittersweet moment.

On the day before the exam, Sellers’ longtime family friend and mentor, Frances Smith, succumbed to terminal liver cancer. Sellers had met Frances and her husband Don at church when he was in fourth grade.

“They asked me if I wanted to come back to church the next week and offered to drive me,” Sellers recalled. “One week turned into seven years. She was, in a lot of ways, the closest thing I had to grandma.”

Later, Frances helped Sellers get his first job at Walmart, where she worked as a hiring associate. Sellers worked there for three years and plans to work there again this summer prior to medical school.

“She was the most passionate person about me getting into medical school,” Sellers said. “She knew I had dreams, and she pushed me. She wanted to be at my white coat ceremony more than anything.”

Sellers has remained involved with church ever since meeting Frances. After his freshman year, Sellers and members of First Baptist Church of DeQueen traveled to Ethiopia on a mission trip with Children’s Hope Chest International, an organization that assists impoverished families and orphans. Sellers has spent the past three summers traveling to Ethiopia and forming strong bonds with the children and families. He has his own sponsor child, Abenezer, that he gets to see every year.

His volunteer work has helped him feel gratitude for his education and experiences and has steered him to a career in which he can help others.

“I want what I do to have purpose,” he said. “I want meaning out of my life. I feel like you can only get that through helping others. When I’m old and gray, looking back at all that I’ve done in life and the impact that I left on this world, I refuse to feel anything but joy and fulfillment.”

James Sellers learned to ride a unicycle while living in West Hall his freshman year. He graduates May 12 and begins medical school this fall. Photo by Benjamin Krain.

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