Levi Holmes ’19 hits it big off-court in math studies

Recent Saint Michael's men's basketball star begins graduate program at elite Ivy League Columbia University in New York City, though pandemic shifts classes to online

April 15, 2020
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer

Levi Holmes III ’19, a four-year Saint Michael’s basketball star and recent graduate, had dreams of hitting the big-time after College. This year that dream came true – just not in basketball.

Levi Holmes

Levi Holmes ’19

Holmes said he tried pro ball in Spain for a short time post-graduation, and though it didn’t work out, the New Jersey native moved on with purpose in his usual manner, feeling well-prepared by St. Mike’s for his next challenge. Building on a lifelong gift for numbers and his strong St. Mike’s academic record alongside his demonstrated leadership through athletics, Holmes was accepted as an applied mathematics graduate student at prestigious Ivy-League Columbia University in New York City, where he started classes in January.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Holmes said recently, his classes at Columbia have moved online as at most U.S. universities and colleges. “I moved back home to New Jersey and I’m taking all of my courses online,” Holmes said in April. “The university enforced that all classes are now on a pass/fail basis so some stress is relieved. There’s a lot going on now in the world, but I try to look at the positives to keep me sane. It’s almost like the world is on pause right now so I’m able to take advantage of things like family time, more time for my studies, and new ways to stay active.”

That positive attitude is typical of Holmes through his years at Saint Michael’s. While it was basketball and a full scholarship that convinced him to attend Saint Michael’s in the first place, he has come to realize more clearly that it was his off-court liberal arts education and strong mentors that offered him his best shot at career success over the long view.

When he arrived for his first year as a top prospect out of Rutgers Prep in New Jersey, Holmes said, “My thought process was to work as hard as I can now and see what opportunities might open up.”  His ability to do that speaks to the flexibility and options that liberal arts education presents under the guidance of strong mentors like those he found at Saint Michael’s in his coaches and professors. “When I came to St. Mike’s I planned to be a double major in economics and business, but my second year I switched that over to economics and math – I really had no idea on a specific career path at that point,” he said.

Holmes was grateful for strong guidance and motivation from faculty, particularly economics Professor Tara Natarajan, now the College’s Dean of Faculty. “She was my adviser for economics and I had her for a couple classes and a seminar,” Holmes said. “She was no-nonsense and about her business, but she really motivated me and pushed me to get things done on my own, because that’s really what graduate school is, she would tell me – you do a lot on your own.”

Looking back now as a graduate student, he sees how much Natarajan’s insights and high expectations prepared him for his current experience at Columbia, Holmes said, explaining how Natarajan “works hard, and expects students to work hard too.” Another strong influence for Holmes was Professor George Ashline of the mathematics faculty, who worked with the men’s basketball team as its faculty representative. “I also had him for a few classes and he was a math adviser too,” said Holmes, adding that Ashline, as a former varsity high school player and team adviser who still plays intramurals on campus, had a good understanding of demands for a basketball player interested in advanced mathematics studies.

For now, Holmes said, he is leaning toward a professional career in quantitative analysis — that is, “solving issues that the company faces, so if it’s a financial company, you need to provide information for clients on how much of a return they can get on investments, for instance. You use the quantitative skills you learn through math, and it also involves some computer programming.” For that reason he is grateful for taking computer science courses as a St. Mike’s senior.

Before his Columbia classes switched to online, Holmes said, “one thing I noticed right away is the drastic difference in class size compared to St. Mikes since my first class at Columbia had 60 kids and the second had 40.” Though not intimidated by that, Holmes feels he benefited from the smaller classes at Saint Michael’s since professors “can be more hands-on with more group activities” that suited his preferred learning style. His Columbia classmates come from all over the world, he said, and while some are in his same mathematics graduate program, others might be working on doctorates or becoming certified in applied physics, so it is an interesting mix.

“My first impression was that I liked what my professor was saying, and I definitely think that St. Mike’s prepared me well to be confident in my classes at Columbia,” Holmes said. He had been living the life of a full-time student with class four days a week while living in graduate housing on the Manhattan campus before the pandemic isolation kicked in, and he is continuing with all of his classes online.

Holmes says he keeps his Saint Michael’s connections alive – one reason being that his girlfriend is still a student, and he also stays in close touch with his former basketball teammates, both current players and alumni teammates. His Columbia program requires completing 10 classes, so he expects to finish by spring of 2021 and he already has been applying to internships in his area of career interest. “They help you a lot in the way of guidance and resources” at Columbia, he said, even though internships are not part of the academic credits for the program.

He looks back and offers strong advice for current Saint Michael’s students: “Make the most of your experience,” he says. “College is meant to be fun, but also prioritize your work first and give that your 100 percent effort and focus, because that is what you’re there for. But also have fun – you’ve got to find that balance.”

“It took me a little bit of time, but I found that balance in my time at St. Mike’s,” Holmes said.

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