“I grew up in Jackson, Alabama. I am a minority, low-income, first-generation college student. In high school, I was in the gifted program which gave me experiences that opened my mine to the world when we traveled to Washington D.C. and New York City. Without those experiences, I could not have imagined what was possible. I realized the gifted program at our school only served a small subset of students. I was one of only four African American students in the program. I had a lot of classmates who were very bright but didn’t get to experience the program because of space insufficiency and test anxiety. I felt it was unfair they couldn’t get into this program.
I went to college at the University of South Alabama and the transition to college was tough. I went alone on a leap of faith and I was a little unprepared. It was scary leaving home and being on my own for the first time. My mom taught me how to navigate through tough situations, but I was sad and depressed and didn’t have friends yet. I had parents who pushed me and I still had a tough time. It must be so much harder for kids who don’t have that support. I realized I could help other kids through what I have been through. In my junior year, my colleague Javon Averett and I co-founded The GAP Program to prepare all students for life. We developed the program and took it to Jackson Middle School, my former middle school, and started with the seventh graders. We thought we were just going to talk to the kids one or two times to get their reaction. The kids were so responsive that we couldn’t stop going. We got them to make vision boards with what they visualized for their lives. We played bean games and taught them about budgeting. We did workshops about financial aid and scholarships. Other students at South wanted to be a part of this so we started training them. We now go twice a month. Our model is to work with kids from 8th grade to 12th grade and get them to college. We also plan to develop programs to get them through college. We focus on four areas: financial literacy, personal wellness, personal leadership, and college exploration.
In high school, I was the nerd and was bullied for that. I want to break that stigma and also the stigma of teachers telling students that college isn’t for everyone. Push them to be their best and let them decide. I was good at math and wanted to be an inventor. I was told engineering was the only degree I could be successful in that. I changed my major in two years from engineering to mathematics and statistics. I just finished my master’s degree in instructional design and am now doing an internship as a loaned executive with the United Way.
Before my grandfather passed, he told me not to quit because I was going to be the first of his children or grandchildren to graduate from college. I had to be the example for my sisters and cousins and prove that our family can go to college and get an education. My three sisters are all in college and two are about to graduate.
I believe in making vision boards. The first one I made with the first students in Jackson came true. I wanted to get into graduate school and do research, but I struggled in undergraduate school, failed classes, and was on academic probation. Two years later, I was accepted into graduate school on probation. I am so grateful they took a chance on me. If I had known at the start of my freshman year what I know now, I could have navigated my classes a lot easier. I wouldn’t have failed the classes during my freshman year.
That first vision board was a circle from the GAP project to grad school to my relationship with Christ to giving back to my community. I want to keep giving back to Jackson. They call leaving for a better place, ‘getting out of the mud.’ But if you make it out of the mud, go back and find good soil to plant a seed. There was a time I didn’t want to have anything to do with Jackson because of the bad experiences. Then I realized those are the experiences that light a fire under me and make me who I am.
We just incorporated the parent foundation for the GAP Project. We want to partner more schools and colleges to expand what we did in Jackson into schools in Mobile and Baldwin counties. Earlier this year we went to the National Youth at Risk Conference in Savannah and our research placed third nationally for best research design. We are working on Access Academy, our online learning community. I love helping people. My why is mentoring students. I have had a lot of mentors in my life, I have to turn around and help other students make a plan to accomplish their dreams. This is how you eradicate poverty, one student at a time.”
(Randy is leading The United Way of Southwest Alabama Youth Philanthropy & Leadership Workshop will be held on Saturday, August 1st from 9AM to 11AM. The workshop is to increase the organizational planning and volunteerism capacity of young leaders. It is for any high school students who are interested in philanthropy, community service, and volunteerism.
To register, visit https://volunteer.uwswa.org/event/detail/?event_id=67567)
Here is the link to The GAP Project: https://www.gapproject.org/