Jayla Jones

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.