On My Own
Sherice Neil Perseveres to Achieve Dreams
Life has never been easy for Shaw freshman Sherice Neil. Living in various motels with her three sisters, brother, mother and grandmother, witnessing violence and addiction in her home and moving constantly during her teenage years, Neil grew restless and began acting out. "Growing up without stability was very difficult," said Neil. "Every day was a struggle just to survive. I became accustomed to being homeless and living in motels. It was the norm for me. Next thing you know, I began to try different things like staying out late hours and smoking marijuana and at one point I even gave up on school and stopped going." Neil, a California native, knew that education would be her way out, but it would take a village of mentors, counselors and organizations to help Neil find her path to success.
When Neil started 8th grade, she enrolled in ACCESS, a program for youth in transition. Neil credits the program for changing her life for the better and providing the stability she needed to complete school. In addition, ACCESS provided transportation to school, home and to the Boys and Girls Club of Tustin, California, a place where Neil would find sanctuary from her life at home and meet life-long mentor, Melanie Flores. "I started attending the Tustin Boys and Girls Club when I was 14," said Neil. "The club provided me with a positive place to learn, study, and have fun -- it also taught me how to succeed in anything that I do." Through the Boys and Girls Club, Neil participated in various programs and conferences, including the Young Americans Performance Group and the Taco Bell Graduate to Go program. "I have known Sherice for almost five years now and knew when I first met her how amazing she was and also knew she would do tremendous things with her life," said Flores. "I have seen her rise out of circumstances most adults wouldn't be able to and I am proud of her for it!"
Motivated for More
After finishing middle school, Neil began independent studies coursework as a high school freshman, but yet another move forced her to miss six months of school. Eager to get back on track and complete her education, Neil had her grandmother enroll her in Norwalk High School, where she met Rosa Barragan, the homeless liaison for the school who would later become another mentor. Inspired by Neil's determination to succeed, Barragan introduced Neil to Tanya Walters, founder of the Godparents Youth Organization, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of youth by increasing academic achievement, leadership skills, high school graduations and college admissions by connecting them to the world through travel experiences. Through the organization's "Road to Success" program, underprivileged youth with a below average grade point average (GPA) are encouraged to raise their grades during a challenge period. Students who bring up their grades and complete the challenge are rewarded with a cross-country trip. "Once Ms. Walters told me about the program, it pushed me to work hard, improve my grades and complete all of the assignments given," said Neil. "I went from a 2.5 GPA to a 3.8 in four months, and eventually earned my spot on that bus!" Neil traveled with the organization to 28 states during the 30-day cross-country trip, visiting museums, memorials and college campuses, including Shaw University. She fondly recalled how the trip changed her outlook on life. "I remember how accomplished I felt when we left California for the road trip. That experience exposed me to so many different places and the African-American culture -- it changed the way I looked at life."
On Fire for Shaw
Once Neil returned from the trip, she was ready to work hard to chart a new course for her life. Now a junior, and on track to complete high school on time, Neil decided to enroll at Cerritos College, a community college in Norwalk, CA to begin taking college-level courses. Balancing both her high school and college courses, working part-time at the school's cafeteria and having to wake up at 5:00 a.m. to take three buses to remain at Norwalk High School -- after yet another move with her family forced her to leave the area -- Neil still managed to persevere. She received several awards and scholarships during this time, including the Soaring Eagle Award from n-Action Family Network and she was accepted into the University of Southern California Summer Leadership Program. "I learned that if I put God first everything else would work out," said Neil.
With a full schedule, Neil still found time to give back and served as a junior mentor with the Godparents Youth Organization. During one of the organization's Saturday field trips, she attended a black college expo where she met a Shaw admissions recruiter. "There was one guy at the expo that was on fire for Shaw and I had one transcript with me so I decided to apply," said Neil. "He was so enthusiastic about the University that I thought this would be a great place to go to school. I never thought twice about it." After deciding to attend Shaw, Neil was worried about how to pay for school, but once again, her mentors, supporters and her faith would make it possible for her to achieve her goals. She received several scholarships and a teacher paid her initial deposit while a woman from her church paid her first month's tuition. In addition, she was selected to work as a freshman peer mentor at Shaw, which included a $4,000 scholarship. For Neil, everything seemed to fall in place. "It's cool how God works because he will put the right people in your life," she said. "He knows where he wants you to go. I'm here for a purpose. I'm not really sure right now what that purpose is because I'm still getting used to it, but I know I'm here for a purpose."
Once at Shaw, Neil struggled a bit in her new environment. "College is different from what I expected," said Neil. "You really have to balance your academic life and social life. It's all about repositioning yourself and figuring out what works for you." As classes began, Neil desperately needed a laptop, so she asked her mentor, Melanie Flores from the Boys and Girls Club, if she could help. During Neil's junior year in high school, Flores encouraged her to participate in the Taco Bell Graduate To Go™ program, a national effort of the Taco Bell Foundation for Teens to raise awareness of America's high-school dropout crisis and fund real-world experiences that are proven to inspire teens to stay in school and graduate. Neil participated and excelled in the program, and impressed the program's coordinators with her drive and leadership. They inquired about Neil during a phone conversation with Flores so she thought they could help with securing a laptop for Neil. "They [the Taco Bell Foundation] had called me to see how Sherice was doing in college," said Flores. "I mentioned that she was doing well, but needed a laptop. They said they could help. Little did I know it would turn into something else."
The Foundation later invited Neil to speak at the Taco Bell Corporation's annual franchisee conference and to receive, what she thought would be a laptop. After a rousing speech to 1,600 conference attendees during the conference's opening dinner, Neil was invited to attend the conference sales meeting the next morning. As the meeting started, Taco Bell's chief executive officer, chief operating officer and chief financial officer invited Neil onstage. They presented her with a $30,000 check to fund her education – more than enough for a laptop. "I was so shocked," exclaimed Neil. "I had no idea I would receive the scholarship money. It was truly a blessing." In addition, Neil received a job offer from a North Carolina Taco Bell franchisee and a $435 check to purchase a bus pass so she could get to work.
Currently studying psychology, Neil hopes to become a high school guidance counselor and maybe one day start a nonprofit youth organization. "We all experience something, we all have been through some type of pain and with my situation, people can relate to it in some kind of way so I have that to give," said Neil.
When she reflects on her young life, she knows that without the "village" she could have taken a different path. "When I look back at my life…the struggles of being homeless and living with violence and addiction, I am so grateful to the many people who helped me overcome these obstacles."