Though Xavier Jones, just 14, was a stranger to LaTonia Collins Smith, something clicked when they met.
“That kid, that day, it was just something that resonated with my spirit,” Collins Smith said.
Jones had started that day on a mission. His grandfather’s car wasn’t working, and he had somewhere to be. So he started walking the six-mile route, which took over two hours and wound through tough neighborhoods and busy traffic, all under the blazing sun. At some point he was so thirsty, he asked strangers for a dollar just to buy something to drink. He thought about turning back, but always pressed on.
The goal? Walk another 30 feet across a stage and collect his eighth grade diploma in a ceremony held at Harris-Stowe State University, a historically Black university in St. Louis, Missouri —and where Collins Smith is the president.
“If you like really want to get something, then you have to work hard for it,” Jones said.
Collins Smith was in the auditorium that day, and she was inspired by Jones’ efforts.
“He wanted to be present,” she said. “(That) speaks volumes … Half the battle is showing up.”
Collins Smith awarded a scholarship to Jones on the spot. The four-year full-ride scholarship would cover all of his tuition at the school, an exciting prospect for any student, but he thought it meant something else.
“He thought that full-ride meant he would get a ride to college, like he wouldn’t have to walk here again,” Collins Smith laughed.
Fortunately, Jones still has four years of high school to process that offer. Until then, he plans to keep up his already-excellent grades and keep stoking that fire in his belly. He has also been given a bike and his family was given a new vehicle, so he won’t have to walk that long route again.
“It basically comes from who I am and the kind of person I want to be,” he said.
That kind of person is the exact type Collins Smith wants in her school.
“You know, often times in colleges we spend a lot of time on standardized test scores because that’s who you are. It’s not true,” she said.
Instead, she prefers to find students like Jones: The ones who are better measured by how far they’ve come.