Story and photos by Mike Wade | NRVCS
It’s not every day someone receives an e-mail that could potentially change his or her life, but that is precisely what happened to Josh Farris on the afternoon of December 1, 2014. It was 4:10 p.m., to be exact.
That’s when Farris, a senior at Eastern Montgomery High School, first learned that he had been awarded a full-ride, four-year scholarship to the University of Virginia (UVa).
“I had been waiting and waiting and kept checking my phone all day because my phone would vibrate every time I got a new e-mail…and I would open up the e-mail and it would be something stupid, like an e-mail from Pizza Hut,” recalled Farris. “School had already ended that day and I was getting kind of down because it was getting late. So, I didn’t think I had gotten it.”
“Then I got an e-mail that said, ‘Update on your status’, so I had to go log in,” Farris explained. “I just couldn’t breathe – but I opened up the e-mail and all I read were the first three words, ‘Dear Joshua, Congratulations…’.”
“I stopped. I threw my phone down, screamed, fell and hit a desk, and took off running to find my guidance counselor so I could tell her,” said Farris.
Farris’ scholarship to UVa is being made possible by QuestBridge, a national non-profit program that recruits and supports academically strong, low-income students by providing educational and life opportunities – including a select number of scholarships to 35 of America’s top universities. Farris noted that UVa only accepted nine students through the program this year – out of 4,000 applicants from across the country who were considered finalists.
“A lot of people are more excited than even I am,” Farris went on to say. “People are coming up to my mom in the store to congratulate her – people she doesn’t even know. So, it feels great.”
Beverly Hylton, Farris’ mother, said she’s always dreamed that her son would one day attend college and go on to make a name for himself.
“I tell everybody that he’s going to be President one day,” Hylton declared. “I said that when he was born because he was born on November 4, he was born on Election Day, and I knew that day that he was going to become something big – I just didn’t know what. I really do believe that he’s going to be president of something one day.”
Josh’s road to Charlottesville hasn’t been an easy one. In fact, when he was just barely beginning his school career, he struggled with academic achievement – and was held back a year so he could repeat first grade. It would take a couple more years of frustration and underachievement before another educator would recognize Josh’s ability.
“I first met Josh about six years ago when I was co-teaching in some classes at the middle school,” recalled Vicki Kitts, a Gifted Resource Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools. “I noticed his ability in reading and writing and started channeling him toward gifted education and higher-level classes.”
“I also worked with him as his advisor in his research when he was working on National History Day projects,” Kitts added. “I think it was the first time he had done in-depth research. He learned how to do interviews and do surveys that year and I think those skills have helped him even through today because he’s still doing that type of work.”
Although things in the classroom were steadily improving for Farris, he continued to struggle socially as a result of his issues with anxiety. He was eventually referred to NRVCS and began receiving counseling and case management services.
“Josh is one of the students I’ve seen the most of over the last couple of years,” noted Traci Walters, the NRVCS clinician/case manager who serves students from East Mont. “He had a lot going on when I first started working with him. He was doing well academically but he didn’t really know what he wanted to do and he was struggling with a lot of his personal relationships.”
“He’s consistent and keeps his appointments with me because he’s truly invested in building relationships with people who can help him,” Walters added.
Walters first began working with Josh at the beginning of his sophomore year at EMHS. She said she’s seen noticeable changes in him during that time.
“He’s been so focused on his academics that I really think that’s helped him cope and get through some of the other things he’s experienced along the way,” continued Walters. “He’s very intellectual – and that has obviously worked in his favor in many ways – but there was also a time when it worked against him.”
“There’s definitely been an increase in maturity with Josh over the last couple of years,” Walters said. “He’s now using his abilities and skills not only for himself, but to also help other people.”
“I’m not ashamed to say that I get counseling,” said Farris. “That’s not a bad thing. It’s actually really reflective and it’s given me the opportunity to look back on my problems and deal with them in appropriate ways…There’s a lot of stigma built around it, but services like counseling or medicine really can help if you do it appropriately.”
Hylton acknowledged that the support Josh received through both the gifted program and the school-based services offered through NRVCS have played an important role in helping her son achieve his goals.
“I don’t know what I would have done without them,” said Hylton. “Especially Mrs. Kitts…she was the one who saw the potential in Josh and took time to understand him.
Driven to succeed
Although there have been some obstacles along the way, Farris has never lost sight of the goal he set for himself back in middle school.
“Ever since sixth grade, I made a commitment and told myself that I was going to go to college because I didn’t want to live in poverty the way my family has,” Farris said. “I know that a lot of people have it worse than we do – and I’m not complaining – but I didn’t want to have to live with the stress of paying bills month-to-month, not having electricity, or being homeless.”
“And I told myself that I wasn’t going to pay for college – I just wasn’t going to do that,” he added. “So, I made sure I stuck to my commitment and made straight A’s all the way through school.”
“He’s just got so much drive,” Hylton added. “I’ve never seen a child have so much drive. He’s given up so much to become the young man that he his…We’ve pushed him, too, but he’s done a lot of this on his own.”
“I guess in my career as an educator, I’m not sure I’ve seen a student that has made so much progress,” continued Kitts. “…In terms of academics, in his interactions with people socially, in building confidence, and in setting goals and reaching them.”
“I think that Josh understood early on that education was the key to wherever he wanted to go,” Kitts added, “and once he developed confidence in himself and was able to see that he could do things, then there was no stopping him.”
“Josh is a young man who has experienced great adversity but he has not allowed that to limit his progress, his process, and his motivation to reach his goals,” said Kitts.
“He’s very hungry for knowledge and very hungry for answers,” Walters added. “That’s very rare for someone his age.”
More than just good grades
Farris, who has maintained an “A” average throughout all of middle school and high school, is clearly not afraid of sacrificing or working hard to achieve his goals. Last year as a junior, Josh was getting up at 5:00 a.m. to attend the Southwest Virginia Governor’s School in the mornings before spending the second half of his day at East Mont. To help his family, Josh was also working part-time at McDonald’s – usually in the evenings during the week – and even took on a second job at one point, working Saturdays at a local restaurant.
Despite his busy schedule, Farris is actively involved in several clubs at East Mont and also advocates for minority students.
“I don’t want to just be known – when people look back ten years from now – for being smart and the guy that made really good grades,” Farris explained. “I’m very passionate and I work very hard for the things that are important to me.”
Farris is also a huge proponent of the Upward Bound, a federally funded program designed to provide certain categories of low income high school students with better opportunities for attending college. He has been involved with the program since he was in middle school. Farris added that he has gained so much from his experiences that he hopes to one day be employed by Upward Bound or a similar organization.
Once he gets to UVa this coming fall, Farris plans to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in business administration with an emphasis in non-profit or public administration and educational leadership.
“The basic tenant and philosophy that I try to live by is that it’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going,” Farris stated. “…In order to lead others, you have to follow yourself. That means being yourself and knowing yourself. If you’re comfortable with who you are, you can lead others because you’re being genuine and people can see that. And that’s what I try to do every day.”