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VOL. 131 | NO. 154 | Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Never Too Early or Too Late to Chase a Dream

By Don Wade

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For every scholarship, there is a story. Rhonda Gray’s story is a little older than most because her first opportunity to attend college came decades ago.

Community Foundation of Greater Memphis scholarship recipients Kamryn Vaulx, left, and Rhonda Gray. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Growing up in Corinth, Miss., Gray made good grades and had high test scores. Several schools, she recalled, were interested in having her as a student.

But her parents were having none of it. No one in her family had ever graduated from college, and Gray’s parents deemed the pursuit just so much “silliness.”

From the time she was a freshman in high school, her mother told her she would not go to college. She didn’t really believe it until she was a senior and her father told her, “If you go, you’re moving out of the house and we’re taking your car.”

Said Gray: “I figured I’d always be working class.”

Today, at age 53, Gray works part-time as a tutor at Youth Villages in Bartlett and is in the process of finishing an education degree from Mississippi State online. She also is one of 83 students to receive scholarships from the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis. In all, 27 different scholarship funds held at the Community Foundation made 84 scholarship awards to 83 students, totaling $123,365.

“Most scholarships are geared toward students straight out of high school,” said Gray, who was thrilled to get the $1,000 Josh Fielder Memorial Scholarship for an adult returning to school (she earlier had taken classes in piecemeal fashion).

Gray is carrying a full load and ultimately wants to teach high school science. Her dream might never have taken life if the job she had been working for 21 years as the manager of a local nursery hadn’t ended when the owners sold out.

“I loved plants. It was a great job,” she said. “But it ended up being very good for me” that the job went away.

Kamryn Vaulx and Niko Dabney are two of those students going straight from high school to college.

Dabney, a Germantown High School graduate, received the Kylen C. Bares Memorial Scholarship and will attend UT Chattanooga and study civil engineering. He became interested in engineering after attending a STEM camp at the University of Memphis. He had always been good at math, so figured engineering was a good fit.

He knows he will need internships along the way and probably will have to work several years in a big firm. But long-term, “I’d like to start my own civil engineering firm in Memphis,” he said, adding that he likes the idea of using engineering to improve structures in low-income areas and help the fight against poverty.

Vaulx, a Central High School graduate who received the Maxine A. Smith Scholarship and the Harold and Ida Jamison Scholarship, will be attending Marymount Manhattan College in New York to study dance performance and choreography.

Her career path looks a little different because dancers are usually finished performing somewhere between age 30 to 35, if they’re fortune enough to not have a serious injury before then. She points to the career of Misty Copeland, who in 2015 became the first African-American female principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theater. Copeland will be 34 in September. And she’s had leg injuries. A transition looms.

“She’s a very big idol of mine” Vaulx said, adding that Copeland’s future lies in choreography and teaching. “But she’s so established, people will still want her to come teach.”

Thus, Vaulx’s goal is to reach a level as a dancer that will help open up future opportunities to teach and work as a choreographer.

“I want to perform in a big dance company that has a variety of styles – ballet, modern, tap, hip-hop,” she said of her immediate goal after college.

Meanwhile, Gray calls her tutoring job at Youth Villages “tough,” but also says she loves what she’s doing.

Her job and her pursuit of her college degree and to teach full-time are perhaps beyond what her parents could have imagined. Both are deceased now, but Gray believes her mom would be quietly proud. And the dad who was going to kick her out of the house and take her car for chasing after that college silliness?

“He would be crazy proud,” she said.

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