Elizabethton teen’s journey to success in SkillsUSA

Published 11:20 am Friday, May 3, 2024

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By Donna Campbell

Star Correspondent


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However it is said, Princess Russell is on the path to it.

This Filipino native, the daughter of Rusty and Melcar Pingkian Russell of Elizabethton, will compete this summer in public speaking at the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference in Atlanta. 

That’s no easy feat considering English isn’t her first language. Or her second.

Russell came to America from the Philippines when she was 8 years old, fluent in two of the languages of her country — Cebuano and Tagalog. She credits her elementary school teachers for helping her conquer the English language.

Russell’s recent first place win at the state SkillsUSA conference in Chattanooga paved her way to the national competition. Now she’ll present her Health Occupations Professional Portfolio before the judges in Georgia.

Before that, though, she’ll celebrate her 16th birthday, finish her sophomore year at Elizabethton High School and rack up a few more hours of community service — one of the key components of her portfolio.

For the national contest, judges will look closely at the competing students’ portfolio contents such as a resume and letters of recommendation, but they will also evaluate the ability of the students to present to an “employer” using effective communication skills.

This is where Russell hopes to shine, but also where she had a few hiccups during the state competition.

“The judges said I stuttered a bit,” she said. 

So they suggested she practice in front of her harshest critic — her own reflection in the bathroom mirror — to build up her confidence.

That’s where friends come in, too.

“I want to thank my friends for listening to me practice my speech, for praying over me, and for keeping up with my shenanigans,” she said. 

The accomplishment section of her portfolio is quite full. At school, she’s on the volleyball team and participates in track and field. She has not let her 4-foot-11 frame keep her from sailing over hurdles almost as tall as she is.

She was on the wrestling team as well, her father said, but chose to forgo that sport rather than compromise her academics.

Russell is involved in JROTC at Elizabethton, where she served a semester as platoon leader.

Community service — needed to complete her portfolio for the competition — has become an enjoyable requirement. Russell chose to volunteer at a local nursing home and was surprised at how much she likes interacting with the residents. 

They’ve been sharing stories with the teenager “that take me back to another time,” she said.

And while she is great with the older generation, it’s the younger folks who are instrumental in her career choice.

Russell often babysits her niece and two nephews and likes it so much she has set her sights on a career in the medical field as a pediatrician. “Kids bring joy,” she said.

After graduation in two years, Russell wants to attend East Tennessee State University and then the Quillen College of Medicine on the ETSU campus. She also plans to enlist in the National Guard while she pursues her education — a nod to her father, a retired Army veteran.

Her parents are her biggest supporters, she said, but she also credits the residents and staff at the nursing home where she volunteers and all the people who wrote reference letters for her portfolio for helping her pursue a national championship.

Her faith plays a large part in that pursuit as well.

“I want to thank God,” she said. “Win or lose, all the glory goes to Him.”

Her advisors at EHS have been instrumental in Russell’s success. Lauren Meier and Katie Dugger have been her teachers and HOSA/SkillsUSA advisors for two years.

Princess is the kind of student that knows what she wants and is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve that,” Meier said. “She has the courage and confidence to get involved and doesn’t let her class or age keep her from competing in these large conventions.”

Meier said Russell is optimistic and friendly, “which helps her fit in seamlessly with any group of people.”

She’s also taught her teachers a lot about determination.

“Princess has taught us that if you are determined to accomplish something, not to let anything stand in the way, especially what other people may think,” Meire said. “As a petite student, she can often be underestimated, but we have learned that Princess should not be underestimated and that despite her size, she has and will continue to do some really big things in her life.”