By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Ramsay High School senior Jillian Jolly, 18, has dreamed of attending Yale University since she was in kindergarten.
“I always heard that Yale was the school where smart people went. It was the top school, and I wanted to be there,’’ she said.
Thirteen years later, her dream has become a reality: She has accepted a full-ride, four-year scholarship worth nearly $300,000.
“It’s not just a big accomplishment for me, it’s a win for the whole community,’’ said Jillian, who’s ranked No. 4 at Ramsay High School with a 4.4 GPA. “I don’t look at it as, ‘Jillian got into Yale.’ I look at it as everyone benefits from it.’’
On Wednesday, Birmingham City Schools (BCS) Superintendent Dr. Lisa Herring, along with staff and board members recognized Ramsay High School students like Jillian and staff members for being named among the Top 25 High Schools in Alabama by US News and World Report on Wednesday, May 1.
Among The Best
Ramsay was ranked No. 11 among some of the best schools in the state.
“One of the most exciting things I can do as superintendent is celebrate the accomplishments of our scholars and I say this everywhere I go, whether I see you in public or whether I see you at the park or in the school hallways or run into you at the mall, our core business is about teaching and learning . . . so whenever there is an opportunity where we can celebrate our scholars and the staff who are invested in educating them, that’s a powerful day,” said Herring.
Out of the 17,245 high schools in the U.S., Ramsay ranks in the top 6 percent, Herring said.
“I want to be very clear that this celebration is about what you give to Ramsay, what you provide in your intellectual property, what you do in your ability to make the right decisions,” said Herring, during the celebration.
Ramsay’s principal, Cassandra F. Fells said she is proud of her students and her staff and the recognition of their hard work.
“I always knew that Ramsay was top notch and I’m so thankful to be a part of your history and know that I love you and I expect great things from you,” she said.
At the ceremony, Jillian, with her mother, Jacqueline Harrell, announced that she would be attending Yale. Mother and daughter both wore shirts with the name of the Ivy League institution while Jillian’s classmates, teachers, school administrators and some family members applauded.
But getting where is wasn’t easy for Jillian.
Some people doubted her ability, telling her that only 5 percent of applicants are accepted into Yale, that her ACT score was too low or that her school did not have the resources as other students accepted into Yale. It was hard for Jillian to hear people say she had a “slim chance’’ of being accepted, or Yale was a “reach school’’ for her. Doubt crept in, and she almost didn’t apply. But she eventually reminded herself she was made for Yale. She had to at least try.
Following the recommendation of her 11th grade language arts teacher at Ramsay, she applied to College Choice Foundation. The Alabama-based nonprofit, which is funded by donations, was created to help high-achieving and academically talented students from low-income families apply for college and find their best and most affordable college fit.
Among other things, it helped Jillian identify colleges, covered costs for multiple college visits, offered ACT prep classes, helped her complete financial aid applications, prepped her for college scholarship interviews, helped her with her resume, reviewed her college application essays, paid for college application fees, and offered weekly one-on-one mentoring. Additionally, College Choice Foundation will continue to provide guidance to Jillian during her time at Yale and even graduate school.
$2.3 million in scholarships
Not only did Yale accept her and offer her a full scholarship, but so did most of her 11 other colleges. Collectively, she has amassed more than $2.3 million in scholarship offers from the 12 colleges, including Wake Forest University, Howard University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Tuskegee University and George Washington University.
Jillian’s mother said she is thankful and is happy with the choice her daughter has made.
“This is a leap of faith for her because Connecticut is over 15 hours away and she’s never visited that part of the country before so it’s going to be a lot of new beginnings for her and for our family but I’m just happy for her because she’s worked so hard her entire school career and just to see her hard work pay off, I’m just excited for her,” said Harrell.
Jillian is the second Ramsay High student in the last two years to get accepted into Yale. In 2018, Ramsay student Brooklin Ballard received a full-ride scholarship.
In her free time, Jillian has volunteered to address youth crime in Birmingham, tutored students, served as a youth leader at church and collected canned goods for the needy. “I guess I’m a voice for the voiceless,’’ she said.
This fall, Jillian plans to major in psychology and later become a surgeon. “I just have this desire to help people and fix things,’’ she said. “I’d also like to start my own nonprofit that helps inner city kids navigate the college application process and make students more aware of the options that they have.’’
She has also impressed local city leaders.
“I’m proud of her,” said Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin. “Any time you have a Birmingham graduate who is a hard worker and is motivated and supported by family, community and her school, the Mayor’s Office and the City of Birmingham are happy to support her, too. She already has a local network of Yale graduates cheering for her, and she hasn’t even walked across the graduation stage yet. What she is doing has inspired me, and I hope she will inspire others.’’
To see Jillian’s Kiwanis Club video interview, which starts at the 4:32 mark, please visit: https://bit.ly/2IRMTji.
College Choice Foundation is now accepting applications for the 2019/2020 school year. The deadline to apply is May 24, 2019. Applicants must be a rising junior or senior currently enrolled in a Birmingham or a Homewood public city school. Applicants must meet several qualifications, including having at least a 3.5 GPA. For more information, please visit www.collegechoicefoundation.org.
Chanda Temple of the City of Birmingham Public Information Office contributed to this article.