Our 2022-23 Discussion Group Leaders

Rev. Dr. Yolanda Davis

Our discussion group leaders are anchored by our longtime friend, Rev. Dr. Yolanda Davis. Rev. Dr. Yolanda has supported our work with her brilliance and compassion for youth since 2006, when my wife and I began serving as Education Ministry Leaders at the Turner Chapel AME Church (Marietta, GA).

Rev. Dr. Yolanda is the only discussion group leader to spend 2 years with the same students (10th and 11th grades). She challenges students to think critically, reflect deeply, and to engage in discussions in the manner that will be expected of them as college students.

Peyton Wilson (Graduate, George Washington University)

I was a member of the CPC at Turner Chapel AME where I volunteered with my sister, Raigon. At a young age, my church community and family made very clear the significance of a college education and a strong work ethic. Due to the firm and compassionate guidance from Mr. and Mrs. Wynn, I was awarded the Posse scholarship to George Washington University. There, I was a Resident Advisor, a campus tour guide, Executive Vice President of our Black Student Union, Creative and Executive Editor of our campus’ Black magazine The Black Ace, a leader within the Posse cohort, and held several campus jobs and research positions. 
I decided to volunteer with the College Planning Cohort because I am a testament firsthand to what the program can do for students. Even after I graduated from high school, the work ethic and dedication I developed from middle school were key to my success in undergrad. I want to help cultivate the same skills in students who enter the program. I had the pleasure of working with stellar 11th grade students last year, and this year I will be working with our 8th grade students. 

Jocelyne L.

A sophomore in the St. Petersburg High School IB Program (St. Petersburg, FL). Jocelyne notes,
I am volunteering because I have been in the College Planning Cohort since 6th grade and I’ve been wanting to help others with their processes as well. Along with the idea of giving general advice, I’d like to share my knowledge regarding the transition to high school, the opportunities and activities available at school, ways to sharpen your transcript while also looking back on things that I could’ve done better. I’m hoping that I can give my discussion group a place and community to be able to talk about their plans, school life, and feel comfortable the way that I was when I was in a discussion group.
With these 8th graders, I am looking forward to helping them identify their strengths, interests, and goals. When I was in their shoes there were many subject areas I could see myself in, but most of them were connected to where I was performing well in school. I want to help our students identify their strengths and passions outside of the classroom, and develop a plan to get them in the mindset for personal success.

Griffin S.

A freshman in the Lakewood High School CAT Program (St. Petersburg, FL). Griffin notes,
I started the Cohort program the summer before 8th grade in the College Planning Bootcamp, followed by the PCS Cohort in 8th grade. This past summer I served as an intern for middle school students in the College Planning Bootcamp and decided to accept the challenge this year to serve as the discussion group leader for the new middle school Emerging Leaders Program.
I am volunteering partially due to the recommendation of my mentors: Mr. and Mrs. Wynn, and to challenge myself by stepping outside of my comfort zone, and because I thought that this would be a good leadership growth opportunity.
As discussion group facilitator I hope to guide the students’ discussions in a meaningful way, and watch the students become more confident in themselves as I did when I first started the Cohort. I am hoping that the students can learn from each other and benefit from the interactions in this discussion group of motivated and talented students.
We are also supported by (in alphabetical order):
Faith Kumi – University of Chicago
Mychal-David Wynn (Graduate, Amherst College)
Robert Penn (Graduate, George Mason University)
Sydnee Brothers – North Carolina A&T State University Honors College
Sydney Soskin – University of Chicago

ASA Guide Right

— Nishan Watson (Hiram High School Academy of Computer Science)

My name is Nishan and I am a sophomore in the Hiram High School Academy of Computer Science in Hiram, Georgia. Currently, I am a member of the Alpharetta-Smyrna Alumni (ASA) Guide Right Program as a Kappa League member. I have been a member of this organization since the 6th grade as a Junior Kappa League member. One of the pillars of the Guide Right program is Training. This pillar deals with academic, career selections, preparation and organization.  The College Prep Cohort works to fulfill this pillar as it provides an opportunity to become further prepared for the college and scholarship process.  

When the Cohort program was presented as an additional resource in addition to the Guide Right Program, I believed that it would be a good program to participate in and see what it had to offer. I was a participant in the SAT/ACT prep that ASA Guide was offering and believed that the College Cohort would be another useful resource. As with other freshmen, the excitement of going to high school and then the overwhelming reality of waiting. I’m in high school and in four years I will be going to college. What college, how will I get there? This seems to run through my mind. 

With the overwhelming thought of what needs to be completed in order to be on the right track, I joined the cohort program. My goal was to gain knowledge and possible experiences on what the entire picture of the college preparation process would be like. In my mind, I thought I was good academically because I was a straight A student, an athlete, and in a magnet program. Surely, it would be good enough to get into my school of choice. During the first session with Mr. and Mrs. Wynn, they mentioned all those things, good grades, being an athlete, etc., but then there was a “but.”  They started to expound that having good grades, or being an athlete, was not going to cut it, if I or anyone else wanted to go to their top school of choice like Florida State University or any other high profile school.  I was informed that there needed to be more which meant we had to stand out above the other qualified candidates who also had good grades.  They asked multiple thought provoking questions which helped me understand that I didn’t have the whole picture as I thought but only part of it.  I had to start developing a college playbook which included a college resume.  This resume would need to include my extracurricular activities, leadership positions, community service, and finally my honors and awards.  I would also need to keep track of my classes and seek out the most advanced classes offered by my school.  They made me ask myself the following, “What made Nishan Watson unique and stand out among others?”

After the first meeting I started working through the modules and attending the group discussions. Afterwards, I began to re-align my activities, academic and personal goals to align with what I wanted for my end and college goal.  I then started seeking out more leadership roles, community service activities and more advanced courses.  In the monthly discussion groups we would give feedback on each slide, and discuss where we could grow or what we could do better as it pertains to the following month’s module. The groups were beneficial because I engaged with other like-minded individuals. These individuals were my competition but on the other hand my fellow peers and we were supportive and encouraging of each other.

As a result of attending the discussion groups with the Cohort and participating in different aspects with the ASA Guide Right program, I developed more confidence and became more outspoken.  I also gained additional leadership skills and positions when I became the Chaplain of my Guide Right chapter along with becoming a board member for the National Guide Right program.  As a board member, I am able to assist with the planning of events for the Guide Rights program nationwide including the “Getting Out to Vote” campaign, and the “Black Lives Matter” movement.  

As a sophomore, I often look back at my freshman year to see what I’ve accomplished.  I did not want to be involved in many activities as I wanted to acclimate myself to this new life of being a high schooler and what all my school had to offer.  I finished my freshman year by setting personal records during my Track and Field session, making all A’s both semesters, and being in the top 10 of my class.  Now, as a Sophomore, I aim to maintain those academic achievements, along with setting more personal records while continuing to grow and build my playbook.  I have started that process by being a member of the Marching Band where I am the captain of the bass line.  I have also been accepted into the Chick-fil-la leadership academy and the Beta Club.  I still have so much more to accomplish.  

Overall, I am thankful and grateful for my extended village and family within the ASA Guide Right Program.  For it does take a village. The purpose of the Guide Right program is to place the training experience and life lessons of successful men at the disposal of youth for the educational and occupational guidance and I truly believe this to be true.  The ASA Guide Right program has helped to grow and come out of my shell.  When I started with them, I was a shy, soft spoken kid. As I matriculate through the program and take advantage of the opportunities and programs that they lay before us, I will continue to be a better student, brother, son, Kappa Leaguer and an overall better version of Nishan.  They are planting seeds and experiences now that will flourish in the future, and I thank them for that support.  The mentors and coaches are amazing, selfless, and dedicated individuals.  They are always willing to go beyond the call of duty and are fun to be around.  My mentors in particular, Mr. Rosemond, Mr. Eberhardt, Mr. Layton, Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Lucas has always had my back and been supportive and encouraging.  They have not only shown their support through their words of affirmation but also in the way they carry themselves.  They are great leaders in this program and are always having our best interest at heart.  During my time in the Guide Right Program they have taken us on college tours, community service activities and through many states to attend the once in a lifetime 100 year centennial of the Guide Right Program.  I am looking forward to continuing my participation in the Guide Right program until my Kappa League days end.  Then I want to be able to return the favor and grace by being a mentor to uprising Kappa Leaguers and helping others as they have helped me.

This is Alpharetta Smyrna Alumni Kappa Leaguer, National Board Member Nishan Watson.

We have partnered with the the Alpharetta-Smyrna Alumni (ASA) Guide Right Program since 2018. While we have had many academically accomplished young men come through our program, Nishan is one of the students who is not only intellectually curious, but who has embraced the idea of “Owning the Process.” He has been receptive to constructive criticism; has been intentional in his course taking; and has embraced the idea of maximizing his “Athletic Advantage” by being academically accomplished; taking rigorous coursework; being a leader; and making a difference in his school and community.

My Williams Fly-in Experience…

— Jayla Jones – Lake City Early College High School (Lake City, SC)

In a previous posting, I talked about Juliana, the 2022 Class Valedictorian from my high school (Lake City High School – Lake City, SC), as the first student in the history of our school district to be offered admission to Williams College, and of my being the first student in the history of our school district to be invited to Windows on Williams (WOW), the Williams College Fly-in Program! Pictured below is a picture of the two firsts in my school district—Juliana (pictured on the left) and me, standing in front of the Williams College sign in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Learning about fly-in programs as a high school sophomore, and then actually attending one as a high school senior, is quite the experience. As a high school sophomore completing the college research module in the online cohort curriculum, I had no idea of the magnitude of completing the fly-in program unit and the impact it would have on my college trajectory. Learning about the Williams College fly-in program was just another one of those little known facts that I had never heard of and that no one in my school has any real understanding of. Through this article I hope to not only share my Windows on Williams (WOW) fly-in program experience, but to contribute my experience to the amazing cohort curriculum so that future cohort students from my small town community will see the opportunities for themselves.

Day 1

I was admittedly nervous on the first day of my trip. Realizing that I was going to travel alone to a place I have never been created nervous anxiety, but I was excited for the new experience. Navigating the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina airport, and my connecting flight at the Charlotte, North Carolina airport was nothing new, so that part was smooth sailing. After my arrival into the Albany, New York airport, I made my way to baggage claim, collected by bags, and spotted a Williams representative and seven other students waiting for the shuttle to campus. During the 45-minute ride, looking through the shuttle van’s windows reminded me of home. The mountains in the distance, and farms and small houses lining both sides of the road, gave me a cozy feeling reminiscent of driving through the rural South Carolina low country. I did not realize that Williamstown, where Williams College is located, borders New York and Vermont so passing the Welcome to Vermont sign was an unanticipated experience. 

I arrived on campus at the Weston Hall Admissions building where I was warmly greeted by Carolina Echenique, the Williams College Associate Director of Diversity Recruitment. Carolina, who is over the entire program, greeted each student by name. That moment was a precursor to the entire weekend—while each of us were honored to have received an all-expenses paid invitation to Williams, the nation’s top ranked liberal arts college and one of the most well known colleges in academia, we would spend a weekend in which the staff and students of Williams College appeared equally honored to host us.

As I walked into the building, Pam Shea, an Admissions Assistant, also greeted me my name and shared how she had enjoyed working with me and finalizing my travel arrangements. As I was getting lunch, Ed Bianchi, the Associate Director for Campus Programs and the admissions representative for South Carolina and North Carolina region, introduce himself. He was from Darlington, South Carolina and recounted his experiences with his father driving to my small town of Lake City, South Carolina for barbecue. In the short amount of time being on campus there were already three people who knew my name, introduced themselves, and made me feel like I was already a part of the Williams College community.  

My student host, Yoheidey (aka YoYo) and her friend Sam, escorted me to my first class. Not only were YoYo and Sam friendly, they were black students and excited to share their experiences as people of color (POC) at Williams—experiences that I was eager to hear about. 

My first classroom experience was Intro to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. This was it! The cohort unit introducing liberal arts colleges and their conversational communities was happening right in front of me. The students and the professor were interacting. Students were sharing their opinions and the professor was engaging them in deep levels of thinking and learning. It was amazing. Everyone took their turn speaking, always respectful, but highly opinionated. Each student had their own thoughts and ideas and every student attentively listened to the ideas of others and eagerly shared their own thoughts and ideas. The small class size was an intimate setting, like sitting in a family room having a conversation with relatives. While I admittedly had never given thought of taking a women’s studies class, I found myself enthralled with the discussion and left eager to return as a student so that I too, could become part of the conversation.

Abby, the other WOW student whom YoYo was hosting, had also chosen that class. While waiting for YoYo, Abby and I talked about where we attended school, how we found out about the fly-in program, and our future aspirations. I had come 840 miles to find someone with whom I could share both my experiences and aspirations. That’s pretty much how the day was going. YoYo served as our tour guide, pointing out the beautiful and historic buildings: Sawyer’s Library, Paresky’s Dining Hall, and the residential buildings. YoYo lived in Williams Hall or Willy’s Dorm, built in 1911 and named after Colonel Ephraim Williams who fought, and died, in the French – Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War). Abby and I spent the day with YoYo, who was kind enough to answer all of our rapid fire questions about the school, financial aid, clubs and affinity groups, and candidly shared her personal experiences of applying to Williams, being offered admission, and having no regrets about her college choice.

Later that night, a dinner was hosted in our honor at the Williams Inn where we had the opportunity to sit at any table where we could talk to an admissions ambassador and current student. Remember, Williams is a conversational community where you talk in classrooms, during walks across campus, and in the dining halls. Thinking, learning, growing, and experiencing was in itself, an amazing experience. Abby and I sat with Christopher Flores, a first-year and first gen student who is such a passionate advocate for Williams that he should be their main spokesperson. He shared the duality of his experiences as both a first-year and first gen. He candidly talked about his background as a low-income student from Arizona and he even shared some of the personal statement essay from his Common Application. 

After dinner, we attended a Jamboree of performances by ten clubs. While they were all very talented, my favorite performances were the Williams College Purple Rain A Capella; Aristocows, an a cappella group performing Disney music; The Williams College Step Team (Unlocking the Story of Step); and NBC: Williams College’s Hip-Hop Dance Team. For me, having lived my entire life in rural South Carolina where everything is pretty much in black and white, it was amazing to see the diversity reflected in each of the clubs and through each of the performances. There were amazingly talented students from throughout the country and from across the world represented. While hip-hop, step, and R&B may have had their origins in black culture, they were being appreciated and performed by students from a litany of sociocultural experiences. What an amazing end to an amazing first day, or so I thought.

Rather than finding my way to a welcoming bed, YoYo took Abby and me to a hang out with other WOW participants and current Williams’ students. Everyone in the room was a POC (person of color) and had their own perspective of the Williams College experience. One student talked about how Williams was not even one of her top three college choices, which included Howard and Cornell, both of which she was offered admission. However, with Howard’s financial aid package falling far short of meeting her financial need and Cornell’s competitive and culturally isolating environment, she found Williams to offer the perfect campus community and the financial aid was the best that she was offered. A common expression articulated by all students was to “milk the cow,” which means Williams expects student to take full advantage of their amazing financial aid opportunities, which covers tuition, fees, room and board, books, health insurance, summer storage, and registration fees and travel to attend conferences. The Williams College core belief is that no student should be limited in their learning, campus engagement, or personal growth due to their financial situation. Whatever your family’s financial circumstances at home, once you become part of the Williams College community, you are expected to pursue your aspirations and immerse yourself in all of the amazing opportunities at Williams. 

Sorry, I need another moment of self reflection. If I was not in the cohort, had not completed the units on liberal arts colleges versus research universities and the unit on fly-in programs, I would not be in this moment. If Mr. and Mrs. Wynn had not provided continual encouragement and pushed me to apply to each of the fly-in programs, including reminding me of the deadlines, I would not be in this space with these people, listening to their stories, and being able to see myself making a similar journey.

Day 2

After a restful night’s sleep, I joined Abby and YoYo for a 7am breakfast in the Driscoll Dining Hall—a campus favorite. Walking around campus I could really tell that fall was in the air. The brisk morning chill only gradually warmed throughout the day. If I choose to attend Williams’ the weather will definitely be an adjustment to the temperate low country weather of South Carolina. After breakfast, Abby and I were off to the first class of the day. Since my first class was not until 10am, I joined Abby in her Quantum Physics class. My high school did not offer physics and I have never taken a physics class through my school’s dual enrollment program. So this was my first experience in a physics class. One of the seniors in the class, a female who is an Astrophysics major, spoke to us in an incredulous tone, “You guys chose to sit in a 9am Quantum Physics class?” While I would have never chosen to sit in on this class and had no idea what was going on, the professor was incredibly passionate about the topic. Although I cannot envision ever taking the class, I enjoyed the experience. I then attended my scheduled class, Intro Psychology. I am currently taking dual enrollment psychology, so I was eager to see if there was a noticeable difference in my current dual enrollment class and a Williams College class. There were a lot of first-year students and the class was the largest of all of the classes that I had experienced. While the professor was covering material similar to what I have covered in my psychology class, it was quite a different experience. In my current online psychology class, the professor does not give lectures. Everything is learned through the readings and assignments. This class, like each of the Williams’ classes I had experienced, the professor talked and students engaged in discussing the topic, raising questions, and embracing their role in this conversational community.

After the class, I walked with Sam back to the dorm to relax a bit until it was time to attend the QuestBridge lunch. During lunch, the Questbridge students shared how they matched to Williams through the QuestBridge process. Although I am a QuestBridge College Prep Scholar, I have received so much guidance through the cohort that I did not see the value in applying to colleges through QuestBridge. As I learned through the cohort curriculum, and which was reaffirmed by the financial aid officers at Williams, the financial aid package that I would receive through a QuestBridge College Match would be no different than the financial aid package that I would receive by applying directly to the college.

After the QuestBridge luncheon, I had a conversation with an admissions ambassador, who was an English major. As a future English/Journalism major, this was a perfect opportunity to learn about her experiences in the English Department. She not only answered all my questions, but gave me her email address and encouraged me to reach out to her at any time.  

With some free time, this was the perfect time for me to wander around the campus and to catch up with Juliana—a first-year student from my high school who had also participated in the cohort. As the first students in our school district to be offered admission to Williams and to be invited to a Williams fly-in program, we wanted to take a picture in front of the Williams College sign to present to our Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Laura Hickson. We were only able to share that moment because Dr. Hickson brought the college cohort program to our school district.

After taking the picture, Juliana talked about how much she is enjoying Williams and the academic resources she has used to assist in her academic success. While Juliana graduated as our 2022 Class Valedictorian, she spoke candidly about the academic challenges at Williams and invaluable experience of attending the 5-week residential, fully funded, Summer Science Program, which helped prepare her for the academically intense Williams College experience. She quickly learned that this amazing opportunity came with equally amazing expectations. Teaching and learning are inextricably tied together. Engaging in a conversational community is about expressing viewpoints rooted in facts, albeit the history of the women’s movement throughout the world or discussing quantum physics and the nature of atoms and subatomic particles. Juliana and I agreed that this was a long way from Lake City, South Carolina—and it was not a matter of distance, it was a matter of consciousness. It was not long before Juliana and I exchanged good-byes with her going off to finish homework and me going off to my next class.

My last class was Poetry and Politics. This class was also a small class where another WOW student and I had the opportunity to talk to students prior to the beginning of class. Consistent with my overall Williams experience, students who were open and eager to share their experiences, talk about their aspirations, and respond to my questions. This was my favorite class. I enjoy analyzing literature and poetry, and while I only sat in on one English class, I think the English Department is a perfect fit for me. 

My final session of the day was the mandatory Admissions and Financial Aid information session. Carolina, the Associate Director of Diversity and Recruitment, and our hostess for the weekend, and Ashley Bianchi, the Director of Student Financial Services, gave an insightful presentation on everything Williams has to offer and their generous financial aid policy. One of the students raised the question, “As a WOW participant, what are our chances of being offered admission to Williams?” As Carolina responded, “While the overall admissions rate at Williams is less than 10 percent, the admissions rate for WOW students, who subsequently apply for admission is nearly 100 percent,” I could hear Mr. Wynn telling us why we needed to apply to fly-in programs as a means of building a relationship with colleges, and thereby significantly increasing our changes of being offered admission. But, going from a less than 10 percent chance of being offered admission to a near 100 percent chance of being offered admission—amazing! Needless to say, “amazing” is the adjective that most appropriately describe my WOW experience. 

After the session, Abby and I went back to the dorm, where we exchanged stories about our day until it was time for dinner. A professor was seated at each table with a name card for their subject. Since there wasn’t a table with an English professor, I sat at a table with Dr. Greta Snyder, a visiting Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Similar to how all my conversations with current students, WOW participants, and admissions ambassadors, the table talk with Dr. Greta was insightful and provided further insight into my educational experience should I chose to attend Williams. 

The final event for the night was a party hosted by the BSU (Black Student Union). Students in attendance were mainly POC and the party lasted well past midnight. The party was still going strong when Abby and I bowed out to get back to the dorm to prepare for our early morning departure from campus. 

Departure Day

My Williams College experience was AMAZING! Francis Marion, South Carolina State, Claflin University, Benedict College, Clemson, the University of South Carolina – Columbia, and Florence-Darlington Technical College are the top college choices in my community. I have never had a teacher, counselor, student, or community member ever mention Williams College and you would be hard press to find a single person, even a social studies teacher, who knows where Williamstown, Massachusetts is located. Without the opportunity of attending WOW, Williams College would be no more than the #1 college on the US News and World Reports Liberal Arts College Rankings—something to learn about, but not realistic to aspire toward. My fly-in experience left me knowing that not only can Williams College be a school that I can aspire toward attending, but that the conversational community, educational environment, and diversity of experiences are everything that I am looking for in my future college—a perfect fit. 

I am looking forward to attending the Carleton and Bates fly-in programs (I was wait-listed for Bowdoin) and to see how they compare to Williams. At the risk of being redundant, I must reiterate that I never realized how important it was for me to complete the cohort Fly-in Program unit. And now, after having traveled 840 miles to Williamstown, Massachusetts, a trip that would be otherwise unaffordable, to learn that just having been invited to the fly-in program virtually guarantees that I will be offered admission should I apply, is an amazing opportunity. 

If you are a cohort student, my advice to you is that while there is an immense amount of work that you must put in to build your body of work and to become a competitive applicant for being accepted into these programs, Mr. and Mrs. Wynn are providing you with step-by-step guidance into unimaginable opportunities. They are opening the door and all that you have to do is to walk through. I just spent an amazing weekend with amazing students, professors, and administrators at one of the most amazing schools in the world. As we go through life, we frequently recount the moments that contributed to turning points in our life. For me, receiving the invitation to WOW was one of those moments. 

— I’m Jayla Jones, a member of the Florence School District 3 College Planning Cohort and future journalist.

Starting a College Cohort Club

— Jocelyne Lioe (St. Petersburg High School IB Program)

I am a sophomore in the IB Program at St. Petersburg High School in St. Petersburg, Florida. I worked together with fellow cohort students at my school [Anna (10th grade); Chelsea (11th grade); and Collin (12th grade)] to start a College Cohort Club. The process of starting up a College Cohort Club is not complicated, but it will take a lot of thought and conversations with staff at the Foundation for Ensuring Access and Equity, fellow students, and a faculty adviser from your school. The College Cohort Club does not seek to replicate the College Cohort Program, but serve as a peer support group to support community-based learning.

At first, the challenge was to figure out how the club would operate since it was, in a way, a smaller version of the larger cohort with many different students who might not even have any experiences or strategies for their college or future educational plans.

To deal with this challenge, I sought ideas for workshops and discussion topics from cohort and non-cohort students attending my high school to ensure that we were focused on identifying localized and specific topics to what students in our high school wanted to learn. The next challenge was advertising the club and garnering interest. I must admit that I was apprehensive about this process and nervous about manning a table, answering questions, and distributing information at our club fair. But, it was fortuitous that there was a club fair already planned for showcasing all of the activities at my high school.

Through the club fair, our College Cohort Club was able to gain interested members while also giving others the opportunity to receive the help, information, and support they needed. The implementation of the club not only spread awareness of the program, but allowed more students with varying backgrounds, situations, busy schedules, and ways of learning, to meet in a less stressed and group-oriented environment.

We had an amazing first meeting where students met during lunch to discuss their needs, share ideas, and collaborate on the direction of our club and ways through which we could best support students throughout our high school. While the cohort encourages students to “Own the process” in pursuing leadership and service, starting a College Cohort Club at my high school is more than just leadership and service, it is an opportunity to share the amazing information I have learned since joining the College Planning Cohort Program as a middle school student.


My College Cohort Journey…

— Jayla Jones – Lake City Early College High School (Lake City, SC)

I attend Lake City Early College High School in Lake City, South Carolina. I am a first-generation, African American student from a lower-income family living in a high poverty community. However, neither my circumstances or household income define who I am and I have always had lofty career aspirations for my future. Yet, as I began high school, it was at the end of freshman year that I reflected, “How am I going to achieve my goals?”

Little did I know that this self-reflective question would be answered as a high school sophomore. When my school and life were in a state of perpetual disruptions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I received an email from my guidance counselor about a program that helps students with college planning. I knew right away that this was something I needed—where else was I going to learn what I needed to ensure the best college and scholarship options? In fact, what were the best college and scholarship options for students like me? 

The first meeting intrigued me so much that I knew that the program was God sent. Like most students, I entered the program thinking of the whole college planning process in a single-minded way. I was a “good student.” I got good grades. I had a high GPA. I participated in some after school activities. I was all set, right? Wrong! I had the notion that I was going to apply to highly selective schools like NYU, Syracuse, or even Columbia. However, I quickly learned that it would take a lot more than good grades and participating in some after school activities to get into these types of colleges (NYU Receives 100,000 applications). Through the curriculum, I learned to align my day-to-day efforts with my long-term college and career aspirations and through my discussion group, I learned to be intentional in my efforts and to overcome my tendency to procrastinate. These were the firsts of many epiphanies.

Through each meeting, lesson, and monthly discussion, I learned that what I thought I knew about college planning was not correct in the slightest. I had to adjust to not only absorbing this new information and reorienting my thinking, but learning about who I was and the changes that I needed to make in myself to have the greatest college and scholarship opportunities. At the beginning, I had thoughts of “This is too much work” and “Why is this even important? I already know about myself and what I want to do.” Even with these plaguing questions, I continued to complete the work and engage in the monthly discussions.

Not long after beginning the program, I began internalizing things that I never thought I needed to. I learned about my gifts and talents and how to align them with my leadership and service today, and career aspirations for the future. While I learned about such programs as QuestBridge and the Gates Scholarship, I learned so much more about colleges that were looking for students like me and offering full scholarships to first generation and lower-income students to diversify their campuses. 

Perhaps the most important thing that I learned as a high school sophomore was how to make a difference in my school and community as a high school junior. It was these actions—those learned through my cohort participation that placed me onto a different college trajectory than most of my peers. I initially began the program with a large group of students from my school. However, it was not long before one by one, they began dropping out of the program. I must admit that I was perplexed. Like me, they were high achieving students with big dreams and aspirations. Yet, they became fixated on the work and not on expanding their college and scholarship opportunities. While I tried to encourage others to join the cohort and invest in themselves, I accepted that we are not all on the same pathways or share the same future aspirations.

While I was the only remaining sophomore from my high school participating in the cohort, I was not alone. At the virtually monthly meetings I was surrounded by academically accomplished students from throughout the country like Omar, from Georgia who was also selected for the Yale Young Global Scholars Program and the 5-week LEDA Program at Princeton University. And Collin, a student in the IB Program at St. Petersburg High School in Florida who attended the AI4ALL 3-week Computer Science Summer Camp at the University of Maryland – College Park, and has applied to the Swarthmore fly-in program. 

Unlike students in other parts of the country who only get to work with Mr. and Mrs. Wynn once per month, our Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Laura Hickson, contracted with the Wynns to work with our school district on Tuesday and Thursday each week during my sophomore year and Monday – Thursday each week during my junior year. With their hands-on guidance, together with the monthly curriculum, I was introduced to amazing opportunities. Last year, most of the seniors participating in the cohort in our school district received full scholarships. Juliana, our class valedictorian, received a full scholarship to Williams College. Most students and teachers at our school have never heard of Williams College because Juliana is the first student in the history of our school district to be offered admission to Williams. The full scholarship that she received from Williams is valued at over $360,000. As I sat in our high school gymnasium listening to her valedictorian speech announcing that she had received a full scholarship to Williams College, the top ranked liberal arts college in America, I thought about how blessed I was to have received the email from my counselor inviting me into such an extraordinary program.

Well, now I am a senior and it is my turn. I have learned that the cohort is more than a college planning cohort journey has taught me that it is more than a college planning program. The program is guided by the 3 pillars of scholarship, leadership, and service. I have embraced these pillars and intentionally built my résumé through scholarship, leadership, and service. After establishing a chapter of the National English Honor Society at my high school, serving on the cohort your leadership board, serving as an intern and mentor at a college planning boot camp for middle school students, and creating a blog, I have made on impact in my school and community and I am reaping personal benefits.

As if this was not enough, while Juliana is the first student in the history of our school district to be offered admission to Williams College, I am now the first student in the history of our school district to be invited to the Williams College Fly-in Program! I know that few, if any, of the students at my high school have ever heard of these schools, because prior to joining the cohort I hadn’t either. 

There are so many more opportunities for me to share, but this is already a long article so check in on this space next month and I will tell you about my Yale Young Global Scholars Experience.

— I’m Jayla Jones, a member of the Florence School District 3 College Planning Cohort and future journalist.