Shawon J.'s Story

Optimism above all is the key to success. Do not limit yourself to the options available in your community.

Shawon Jackson believes that anyone can succeed with the right resources, regardless of where they come from. He grew up in a relatively poor neighborhood of University Park, Illinois with his mother and younger brother.

After his freshman year at a local public high school, Shawon asked his mother and father if he could transfer to a boarding school that offered advanced math and science courses and housing for free to gifted students, but was located an hour away from home. It was difficult for them to see Shawon go, but they supported his ambitions and knew that boarding school would offer a better education. When he arrived at the new school, Shawon saw a dramatic change in both his learning and awareness of the opportunities available to students like him.

Junior year of high school, Shawon heard about the QuestBridge College Prep Scholars Program from another student and thought it seemed “too good to be true.” He was not sure if his family qualified as low-income and decided to ask his mother if he should apply for the program. “Oh baby,” she said, “we for sure qualify for that, you better apply right way.” Although invited to the College Admissions Conference at Yale University, Shawon did not have enough savings to pay for the plane ticket and was unable to attend. Still, he was proud to have been named a College Prep Scholar and decided to apply for the National College Match in his senior year.

When College Match decisions were released, Shawon checked his email in the bathroom, too nervous about the result to let his boarding school roommate see his reaction. In an email, under the word “Congratulations!” he read that he had been accepted to Princeton University with a full scholarship.

Leaving Illinois for college was hard for his mother. However, she told Shawon that this sacrifice would lead to a good outcome. At Princeton, he felt prepared for the academic rigor thanks to his years at boarding school, but found the transition a challenge in other ways. “A lot of times, I walked around campus feeling like I didn’t deserve everything I had there,” he said.

Shawon took advantage of every opportunity available at his new campus home. The summer after his freshman year, he studied abroad in Spain for one month and completed a two-month internship with an NGO in Honduras. He became Liaison for the Princeton chapter of the QuestBridge Scholars Network and volunteered his time to counsel high school students applying to college through QuestBridge. Excited to serve others, Shawon also joined Princeton’s Undergraduate Student Government and was elected Student Body President, a role typically reserved for upperclassmen, in his sophomore year. He ended up serving a second term as Student Body President in his junior year.

Shawon went on to work with a youth and education nonprofit in the Dominican Republic as a Princeton in Latin America Fellow. There, spent half of his time teaching personal and professional development skills to young adults aged 17 to 24. With the rest of his time, he assisted with monitoring and evaluating the organization’s impact.

To students facing obstacles in their path to a college education, Shawon has these words of advice: “Optimism above all is the key to success. Do not limit yourself to the options available in your community.” He believes that low-income students, like him, will always have to work harder than others, but that this is not an excuse to fail. "Determination will always be recognized," he said. “In the end, it is so worth it.”