Jaquiel with Say Yes to Education Founder, George Weiss, National Grid Regional Executive, Melanie Littlejohn and SCSD Students.
SUNY Westbury ‘15
“Now, not only do I see, but I feel that there is life beyond where I grew up. I now know that I can do something every single day to build my future.”
“I honestly didn’t think I was going to graduate. Guidance counselors met with all the seniors to discuss future plans… I never had that meeting. I had to text my mom the day before graduation saying I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. The day of graduation I went into school and they were like “Oh you made it!” and I was like “Oh seriously?””
However, making it to graduation was a critical point in Jaquiel’s life: “The day of my graduation George Weiss [Founder of Say Yes to Education] was giving a speech about what Say Yes was offering us. I had really never paid attention to it before that point and when I heard the part about free tuition I told myself I should go to college somewhere. “It’s free so why not? Get out and see what else is out there,” was what I was thinking.”
Having decided to go to college, now he had to choose where. Monroe Community College became his pick… it just so happened to be the place a crush of his was going, so he thought “Why not?” He intended to go to study music and auditioned to get into their performance arts program. Anyone who knows Jaquiel would know that one of his greatest assets his is voice, both in his ability to speak and sing. He was always the kid in the backseat of the car singing along to songs that only he could hear.
After graduating from MCC, Jaquiel decided on SUNY Fredonia as his next step in life. He had heard of its renowned music programs and thought it would be a great fit. When the next school year came around, he headed out to his new school: “That was my one mistake with Fredonia; I didn’t go check it out beforehand. When I was at MCC, I was open to everything. I was doing a million and one things. But at Fredonia, it was in a small town with not much going on. I didn’t find much to do. So I decided to transfer out.”
So far, however, college has been an amazing journey for Jaquiel: “College has been different and way better than what I expected. You see college on TV where everyone is partying and things like that. Your teachers in high school all went to college… there’s a certain prestige that comes with someone that can say they went to college. I had my own connotations thinking it would be something like a prep school, but when I got there, it was so much more than that. In a university setting, most of your learning occurs outside of the classroom. Since kindergarten, the majority of your learning happens inside a classroom, but now you learn more from being around a lot of different, open minded and ambitious people. I love that.”
This learning outside of the classroom through interacting with people very different from himself, has had a profound impact: “Each person that I met had a big influence on me. I had one roommate who was heavy on reading. He wouldn’t go to class, but would just read all day. He introduced me to a lot of different books that I wouldn’t have been interested in otherwise. Everyone I have met has contributed to the person I have become now.”
That person, however, has seen more than his share of challenges. Despite the growth and change in Jaquiel from high school to college, there are holdovers from his past that continue to shape the way he wants his future to pan out: “I had taken a semester off and I was around some friends… they had done some things that led to me being charged with a crime. This is how I originally got into law. I remember sitting in front of the judge and he didn’t ask me a thing. He just looked at me and saw me as a black guy and smacked down the gavel and threw me in a cement box. Thankfully I had a lawyer to get me out of it, but that showed me where I stood in my advocacy for justice.”
His next step is SUNY Westbury, a choice influenced by the musician in him wanting to be closer to New York City, and the justice advocate in him seeking to change lives. Jaquiel wants to be able to show others that have similar beginnings as him, that there are opportunities; that it is still possible to pursue your dreams. His internal drive to do good must constantly overcome the violence of his youth:
“Syracuse for me has a yin and a yang. I visited a friend in the cemetery and I was looking around at all of the people who would not be able to live the rest of their lives. Their lives were cut short before they could even make the choices that I have been able to make. I ask myself if what I am doing is in vain, if no matter how hard I try this [the cemetery] could be my future? I have seen a lot of violence in Syracuse. When I was shaking hands with the mayor, I wanted to forget about all of it, but it’s a part of me. It has made me who I am, so at the same time I don’t want to forget it.”
Jaquiel attributes his ability to overcome his life challenges to the fact that he was given hope. “I used to have the mindset that life didn’t exist outside the city of Syracuse. Now, not only do I see, but I feel that there is life beyond where I grew up. I now know that I can do something every single day to build my future. I have hope, which is what I was lacking before.” He wants to use his story and experiences to influence others: “A lot of people are still lacking that in Syracuse and I want to try to act as a liaison to give people hope. If you can give people hope, then they can make a change.”
Say Yes to Education played an integral part in providing that hope for Jaquiel. “Say Yes has allowed me to find my niche. It has shown me where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. It has shown me my passion for people. I have seen where my element is, where my place in life is. It has shown me that I want to be a liaison for other people, to show them that they can get out and do what they want with their life. My grandfather always says to me “When the door is open for you, you leave it open, for someone else to come in after you.” That’s ultimately what I am trying to do, just leave the door open, because that’s what Say Yes did for me.”
Moving forward, Jaquiel thinks that Syracuse and Say Yes are intertwined; that the presence of Say Yes has invigorated the city to become greater: “Say Yes makes us ask “Okay, what else can we do to make the city better? How far can we raise the bar?” That is where the city is at right now. The city is mentally together and everybody is coming to a point where we want to see how far we can go. It’s becoming more than just a basketball city, more than the city that has Syracuse University.”
If you have had the pleasure of hearing Jaquiel speak, you understand the amount of passion and drive he brings to his goals. After Westbury, Jaquiel is “shooting for the stars” for law school at SU, Howard NYU, UCLA or Columbia in an effort to be able to better influence the youth of Syracuse. He will be recognized on a grander scale than Syracuse one day, and if it is in the form of a movie, Jaquiel will still be trying to make Syracuse better: “I don’t know who would play me, but the kids gotta be good looking. I would have to hold auditions. I would want him to be from Syracuse though. I feel like that would be a nice touch.”
Spotlight by:Jason Ashley
Intern, Say Yes to Education | Syracuse
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