Alumni in Action: Aaron Smith ’13 pivots on and off the court while advocating for other student-athletes

From sports dreams to leadership in higher education, Smith is a shining example of the resilience of an Elon graduate.

Aaron Smith '13 playing basketball for Elon
Aaron Smith ’13 playing basketball for Elon

Aaron Smith Jr. ’13 first learned about Elon University through his high school basketball team at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, North Carolina. Two former players of the high school, Monty Sanders ’09 and John Charlesworth ’10, were playing basketball for Elon at the time, and would often return to Cardinal Gibbons for scrimmages and mentor the younger players.

“It was because of them that I became interested in the Elon basketball program and started following their games,” said Smith.

Smith’s lifelong dream was to play Division I collegiate basketball and follow in his mother’s footsteps by earning a degree in communications. When he and his family visited Elon, he knew that it was the place for him. “The campus was, and still is, the most beautiful I had ever seen. Elon instantly felt like home, and a place I felt would be a great learning environment,” he said.

Smith dedicated his last two years of high school to academics and basketball to ensure that he would be able to attend Elon. His dream became a reality when he started college in the fall of 2009 and joined the men’s basketball team the same year.

“I had offers from other schools, but my focus was always on Elon,” Smith said. “I ended up being what is called a ‘preferred walk-on.’ I applied to Elon like everyone else and was accepted based upon my academics. I built a relationship with the coaching staff and players, and once I was on campus, I attended workouts with the team. Before the start of the season, I had to try out but I made the team my freshman year.”

Smith went on to play basketball at Elon for all four years of his undergraduate career. As a student, he majored in strategic communications and served on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. He also participated in two internships, one with the Carolina Hurricanes and the other with the Ronald McDonald House of Durham, furthering his academic experience by assisting with their marketing.

Following graduation he pursued higher education for himself, earning a certificate of technical communication from Duke University in 2014 and a Master of Science degree in international business management from the University of East London in 2016, where he attended on a basketball scholarship.

Smith with a player that he coached in China.
Smith with a player that he coached in China.

Smith’s time in London deepened his love for basketball. He earned his level two U.K. coaching certification and became the head men’s basketball coach for the University of East London’s second team, while also playing professionally for the London Eastside Eagles and the East London All-Stars. While living abroad, he was able to keep in touch with his alma mater by being an active member of Elon’s London alumni chapter, helping organize events for the chapter from 2014 to 2016.

After earning his master’s degree he relocated to China, where he worked in several different jobs — head basketball coach for the Show 1 Sports youth academy, director of basketball operations and player development for Viking Sports, and teaching English part-time to children and young adults. He credits Elon for preparing him for living abroad following graduation. Particularly, his time studying abroad in 2011 with the basketball team, when he took a trip to Austria, Germany and Italy.

To this day, Smith says living and working in China was the most transformative experience of his life. While there, he was able to personally train individual athletes, one in particular that he will never forget. Smith trained this particular player from age 14 until he was 17. Smith was reminded of himself in the young man, as he strived for the same lifelong dream as Smith once did in high school.

“We worked tirelessly on his skills every week. He was the hardest working young player I’ve come across in all my years of coaching,” Smith said. “Needless to say, when this young man got to play basketball at the University of Beijing and live out his lifelong dream, it was so rewarding for me. I still stay in touch with him and his family to this day.”

Smith working with Rekruut Sports at an event.
Smith working with Rekruut Sports at an event.

Smith loved working with young student-athletes so much that in 2017, he co-founded Rekruut Spot with his friend, Jack Anton. The company’s goal was to recruit post-graduate student-athletes to counsel them and secure higher education for them to compete on an international level with the possibility of becoming professional athletes.

For Smith and Anton, the one thing they couldn’t have predicted was the COVID-19 pandemic, which sadly forced the end of their business in 2020. Smith said the hardest part of his post-graduate life thus far has been dealing with the pandemic and the sudden changes that it caused. He had to pivot, and do so quickly.

Smith was still living in China when the pandemic started, and he hadn’t planned on leaving because it felt like home to him. However, travel restrictions were getting increasingly difficult to navigate, so Smith changed his plans and returned to the United States while he could.

“Things changed quickly, we were put on lockdown and I decided I needed to return to the U.S. But by late February there were hardly any flights from China to the States,” Smith said.

“Feeling hopeless I devised a plan, I found out there were still flights from China going to South Korea. So I packed as many of my belongings that I could fit in one suitcase, leaving many things behind. From South Korea I was able to fly back home to Atlanta and then to Raleigh,” he added.

Once he returned home he had to pivot yet again, knowing that his career was also left behind in the aftermath of being uprooted.

Smith coaches a young child at the program he worked with in China.
Smith coaches a young child at the program he worked with in China.

“I started working in higher education in part due to my background, working with a lot of young people, but ultimately because of the pandemic. Once I left China I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said.

In 2020, Smith returned to Cardinal Gibbons High School as a substitute teacher while also coaching AAU basketball for Pro Skills Basketball in Raleigh. “It was during this time that I decided higher ed would be a great fit for my skills and passions,” Smith said.

His first higher education role was at Hartwick College working as the Assistant Director of the Parent and Family Association, where he was responsible for managing parent and family initiatives to increase retention, parent affinity, volunteerism and philanthropy. While there, he also served as a mentor for a program that partnered minority students with minority faculty and staff members.

When an opportunity at St. Andrews University presented itself, Smith was elated to get that position. Now, closer to home and his family and friends, Smith is also able to work on something he is passionate about as the Regional Admissions Counselor, helping college applicants explore all opportunities available to them at the institution.

“My job is extremely rewarding because I’m out in the community interacting with young people and having a positive impact on their lives. It has always been my mission to be a positive role model, especially for young people of color,” said Smith.

In his new role, he carries with him all that he learned from Elon. Smith says there will always be a special place in his heart for his alma mater. 

“I can speak knowledgeably to students and families about the type of personal attention you receive at a private institution thanks to my Elon experience. The tightknit family-like atmosphere, the active alumni network connections, and the list goes on,” he said. “Elon accepts high quality, high character students. Combine that with the amazing professors, leadership, and it’s a recipe for success.”

Aaron Smith, Jr. '13As for his future, Smith hopes to settle down and start a family of his own soon. He knows that the last few years didn’t go how he had envisioned because of the changes that the pandemic caused, but that ultimately he landed where he belongs.

“I believe in being the best version of yourself, putting God first, treating others with kindness, continuing to learn and working hard in something meaningful that makes you happy,” he said. “I think if you do those things you will end up where you are supposed to be.”