Go to college — it can change everything


Imagine a still lake on a sunny day. A drop of rain hits the water’s surface and ripples appear. I am a ripple.

On Aug. 24, 2009, a friend changed the course of my life. As senior year in high school loomed ahead, the word “college” was falling off the tongues of every teacher and relative.

But the closer I got to the first day of school, the more uncertainty weighed me down. What were my life goals? Am I college material? Is college even worth my time? I struggled to find my purpose and path.

But on the first day of my senior year, everything changed.

I woke up anxious, more so than at the start of any other year. My school’s main hallway was packed like sardines when I arrived, everyone talking excitedly about their summer breaks. I was nervous — I knew this was the beginning of the end, and I didn’t know what came after high school. I saw my best friend, Ashley Daniels, through the crowd. She approached and asked the question I dreaded most: “So where do you want to go to college?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged.

Ashley was shocked. “What are you going to do with your life?”

I told her about my hesitation to apply to college, but instead of criticizing my fears she gave me a challenge. “We can change this together. Let’s make a deal! I have five schools on my college wish list. If you apply, and we’re both accepted into the same school, we can go to college together!” That was a deal I couldn’t refuse.

Ashley stood out — she hadn’t spent her summer lounging around like most of my peers. She went off to become a Peer Leader with College Summit and came back to school excited to apply for college, and with a tool belt of resources to make it happen. The College Summit workshop was the first time anyone told Ashley she was worthy of a higher education. She said it changed her life, and she wanted to pay it forward.

For the next four months, she sat next to me after school every day while I wrote my personal statement, filled out applications and even filed the FAFSA — a mysterious and confusing document I understood little about. I couldn’t have done it without her.

I had always admired Ashley, but seeing her help others apply for college, I felt lucky to be her best friend. She was someone my classmates trusted to tell it like it is — that college was possible for all of us, no bull. Ashley helped us understand if she could do it, we could too.

Think about every major movement in our nation’s history, whether civil rights, women’s suffrage, immigration reform, or presidential elections: it all boils down to positive peer pressure. When we march, vote, or stand up for justice, we do so alongside our friends. They get us involved, bought into the idea that we can be the change we want to see in the world. They make us believe in ourselves.

This is what College Summit refers to as the phenomena of “student activation.” It isn’t just about having a voice, you need to do something with it. It’s about touching other peoples’ lives and creating ripples of change.

Student activation is the most powerful tool we have to encourage students in under-served communities to attend college.

I’m living proof.

Two years ago, I received my BA from the University of South Florida, where Ashley and I were roommates. I became a volunteer for College Summit and now serve as their Alumni Fellow. I wrote this from my desk at their national office in Washington, D.C., where I help students like me find their way to college.

Ashley was the drop of rain; I am the ripple of change.

Cornelius Williams is a native of Miami Gardens and a graduate of the University of South Florida.