It wasn't that long ago that Jarel White and his sister, Jewel, were celebrating his graduation from Lafayette High School.
When Jarel White was working on his application for the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, he received a lot of help from his sister. That made a lot of sense. After all, she was a semifinalist in 2017, but he said there was no sibling rivalry involved.
“It was like a sibling boost,” he said a few days after learning he was a semifinalist this year. “I guess I’m just carrying on the tradition.”
White freely admits he has big dreams, and he credits that with his success so far.
“My ambition to succeed sort of helped me persist in doing the things I was doing,” he said.
And White was doing a lot. He was more than just an honors student at Thomas Nelson; he was also the Student Government Association vice president at the Historic Triangle campus, a member of Phi Theta Kappa, the National Society of Leadership and Success, TRiO and he was also in the College’s investment club. In addition, he has been working with Thomas Nelson political science professor Leo Keneally on developing a student stock market game.
If that’s not enough, he earned his associate degree in social science from the College in December 2020, just a year-and-a-half after graduating from Lafayette High School in 2019.
“I was just taught to always work hard, and I had an end goal in mind, which was to do well,” he said, adding he figured the better he did the more options he would have as to where to go next.
He has some time before he makes that decision, as he won’t be attending a four-year school until the fall. However, that doesn’t mean he’s taking time off this semester. He’s working to obtain an online certificate in film studies from New York University through its Film and Television Industry Essentials program, a field he wants to pursue.
“It teaches you the fundamentals of filmmaking, the history. It teaches you about the television industry, not only directing and production work … but the entire process of it,” he said.
It’s a self-paced program, and he has one year to complete the coursework.
“I just kind of did it because I was curious about the program and I wanted to do something during this break, not just take time off doing nothing,” he said. “I wanted to keep invigorating my mind, so I decided to do it.”
He said the colleges he’s applying to, mostly Ivy League schools, wouldn’t have fit in his timeline, anyway. And waiting until fall will give him more time to prepare those applications.
“I really wanted to dream big, really put my best foot forward,” he said. “This was the best decision, just learning as much as I could; to have a goal in mind and keep striving toward it. Hopefully, it will come to fruition.”
His teachers and advisers at Thomas Nelson say it’s all possible.
“I recently wrote a recommendation for him, and I said he stands tall above the rest. So I’m not at all surprised he got this far,” said Keyanna Hawkins, who as the former TRiO project coordinator at the HT campus first met him at the JumpStart program in summer 2019. “Jarel’s going to change the world, and I say that very confidently.”
Keneally had White in one of his classes and also worked with him through SGA.
“He is an outstanding student, very involved with the college and his fellow students, and extremely outgoing,” Keneally said.
English professor Tom Batten said having White in his class and working with him made him a better teacher.
“He's wonderfully intelligent and fantastically ambitious, but even more impressive is his deep sensitivity and thoughtfulness about himself, his work, and his community,” Batten said. “He exhibits a real drive to connect and be of service both right now and as he continues through school and into his professional life.”
White’s goal is to use that passion for others in his professional life as a filmmaker, telling stories of the underprivileged and disenfranchised. He knows both well from firsthand experiences.
He was homeless on a number of occasions while being raised in a women’s shelter by a single parent. He has dealt with racism and other forms of discrimination. He hasn’t always had the same resources or opportunities as his peers, but those experiences also have led to his success.
“Since I was exposed to an environment where education was heavily emphasized, my drive for greatness inside and outside the classroom stems from a desire to assist those that may be disadvantaged because of race or socioeconomic status,” he said.
While wanting to pay it forward as much as possible, White also knows many have done the same for him. His list of people and groups he credits for his success is as long as his list of accomplishments; among them Hawkins, Batten, Keneally, his sister, Jewel, the Thomas Nelson community.
“I couldn’t really have done it without the people in my corner,” he said. “All these people that just put so much faith in me … believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
“I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now, which even being considered a semifinalist is an honor in and of itself.”
This is the fifth consecutive year a Thomas Nelson student has been named a semifinalist. In 2018, Rebecca Holmes was a finalist, meaning she was one of about 50 students nationwide to receive a scholarship worth up to $40,000 a year. More than 1,500 students at two-year institutions apply each year, with about 500 becoming semifinalists. This year’s finalists will be announced in April.