By Johnny Jackson
Hampton resident, Jerrel Baker, at 17, is the youngest of four children. However, he said, he was the first among them to make it to his senior year of high school. And he plans to be the first to graduate.
"They do support me, and they're proud of me," said Baker. "I've achieved most of the things I have, due to personal drive. I used their failures as motivation to help me succeed."
The Lovejoy High School senior recently achieved a feat that will give him a chance to earn a hefty college scholarship. Baker was named a semifinalist, with three other area Advanced Placement students, in the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation's National and Regional Scholars Program.
"As a leading scholarship provider, we recognize our role in helping young people achieve their college goals," said the foundation's president, Mark Davis. "The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation received nearly 71,000 applications this year, and the semifinalists are truly some of the most accomplished students in the country."
Area semifinalists joining Baker are: Adeola "Ade" Popoola, of Stockbridge High School, Ansley Wilson, of Union Grove High School, and Brandis Rencher, of Jonesboro High School, according to Jennifer Grizzle, spokesperson for the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation.
Grizzle noted that the area's semifinalists were chosen from an initial applicant pool of roughly 26,000 high schools nationwide. She said they are among 60 semifinalists in Georgia, and 2,152 scholastic achievers nationwide, vying for scholarships worth $10,000-$20,000 annually.
A scholarship from the foundation would be a boost to Baker's aspirations to study constitutional law. He said he wants to attend Columbia University in New York City, to major in political science, and minor in international relations, before he applies to law school.
Popoola, of Stockbridge, said she wants to attend the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pa., to major in biology, and eventually become a pediatrician.
"I've just always liked helping," said Popoola, 17. "I thought being a doctor would be a cool way to help. And I like kids, so I put the two together."
Popoola credits her scholastic success, thus far, to her faith. "My faith in God has allowed me to want to succeed in many things," she said. "I know He's given me many abilities, and it would be wrong for me to not use what He's given me, and help glorify Him.
"I want to help people, and I know I can't help people if I'm a slacker," she continued. "I want to be in a position where I can help as many people as I can."
Rencher, too, is inspired to help children through medicine by becoming a pediatrician. The Jonesboro resident said she wants to attend Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, where she plans to major in biology and pre-med. "I've always loved kids, and I've always loved going to the doctor and seeing how everything works," explained Rencher, 17. "My pediatrician [Dr. John Seward] has motivated me. He gave me all sorts of reasons, facts and opinions, to make me want to become one.
"And my mother [Olivia Rencher] is my rock," she added. "She helps me do whatever I need to do to succeed."
Wilson, 18, pointed to her grandmother, Edwina Redman, as helping her to succeed in, and out of, school. "She was the one who actually sat down with me and made me seriously sit down with my work, and she made it fun," said Wilson. "Knowing that I've gotten this far, I know that I can like what I do, and make good money when I get older. So, I can't stop now, I've got to keep going."
The McDonough teen wants to attend Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Ga., where she would major in early childhood education, and minor in marketing.
Describing herself as a big-city woman with small town roots, Wilson aims to have a brief career as a fashion writer in New York City, to be followed by a career as an early childhood educator. "That was the first thing that I ever wanted to do," she said. "That's just what type of person I am."
Wilson and the other semifinalists must submit additional information to remain in the running for the scholarships, according to Grizzle, the foundation's spokesperson.
Grizzle said the semifinalist applicants, having already proved their scholastic prowess, will also be judged on their extracurricular and community involvement over the course of their high school careers.
"It is an extensive application that they have to complete," added Grizzle, noting the process includes two letters of recommendation and four brief, written essays.
If they advance, she said, the students will be among 252 finalists who will travel to Atlanta April 14-17, to attend the Coca-Cola Scholars Weekend. They will take part in a final interview process, and in a community-service project, before the foundation awards $3 million in scholarships.
The final interview process will determine whether finalists receive the designation of National Scholar, or Regional Scholar, continued Grizzle. The 50 National Scholars will each receive a $20,000 scholarship award annually, while the 200 Regional Scholars will receive a $10,000 scholarship.
To date, the foundation has awarded more than 4,700 Coca-Cola Scholars with more than $44 million in scholarships since its inception in 1986.