Story 4 of 20: "They knew I was capable...I proved them all right..." by Greg Copley and Jacare Thomas

Greg Copley started high school at Manley Career Academy in 2004. His biggest concerns were graduating and getting his diploma. To him, high school was a temporary obstacle in the way of the next stage of his life. Jacare Thomas, an employee of Umoja, saw something very different for Greg’s time at Manley and his future. Little did Jacare know that years later Greg would help shape Jacare’s own son’s life trajectory as well. Read more…

Greg Copley: “I figured that I would graduate from Manley and find myself in some technical field, maybe an electrician. I was convinced that’s what I would do and didn’t think much about other possibilities.”

Jacare Thomas: “In about April of 2007 (Greg's junior year) at Manley, the ACT scores were released and I combed through the scores.  I came across a very high score attached to a name I didn't recognize.  I looked up the student's GPA and class rank to find out that the young man had a 4.0 GPA and was ranked number 2 in his class.  I needed to find out who he was so I went to see Ms. Sayers because she knew all the students, and we usually were able to have very frank conversations about the student's needs.  While I was speaking to Ms. Sayers through the doorway of her classroom, she says, "There he is."  Greg walks pass.  He is wearing the uniform at that time; jeans with a bit more than a slight sag and a white tee and his hair corn rolled straight to the back.  The peculiar thing was that he had a number 2 pencil behind his ear and he was twirling a spiral notebook on two fingers and walking down the hall as if he didn't have a care in the world. I realized that I had seen Greg many times before but he was so cool and laid back that I never assumed that he had one of the highest ACT scores I had seen at Manley and that he was number two in the class.

I went to speak to the College & Career team (Nicole Williams, Easter Young and Simone Woods) and they were excited.  We all started making it our business to engage Greg.  The team really did a great job of building a relationship with him. In my first conversation with Greg, he said with certainty that he was not going to college.  I later learned that Greg was very serious about staying in Chicago to take care of his family.  Well, Nicole, Easter and Simone were very serious about taking care of Greg.”

GC: “I remember them thinking that I was joking when I told them that I wasn’t planning on attending college. I have had countless discussions about my future with a representative of Umoja. Whether it was Simone, Nicole, or Easter, it didn’t matter, a strong theme emerged from them collectively. They knew that I was capable of going to college and making more of myself.

Umoja gave me the impetus to apply to college. Nicole told me that she would make me her personal project and took me under her wing.  I am a Gates millennium recipient and I attribute that to her succor.  Umoja is so vital to bridging the gap between high school and the future. Umoja is an invaluable resource and shouldn’t be taken for granted. The staff was focused on helping the individual reach their respective goals. A member was always willing to take time to assist students to leap hurdles. They were all very motivational and pushed me for the better. I proved them all right.”

unnamed.jpgJT: “Fast forward to 2015. I'm on the University of Illinois campus giving my own son a tour of the quad.  At the time, the enrollment was 44,000 and it was a holiday. I look up and Greg is walking by less than 10 feet away.  He sees me.  Greg was on campus completing some post-undergrad work (paid for by that same Gates scholarship).  He had already completed his undergrad and had a degree in Engineering (the same degree I had attempted 20 years earlier).

Greg took the time and spoke to my son, and though he had the same conversation we had with Greg years ago, said the same things I had said to him and my son many times, he was able to reach my son in a way that I never could.  My son just finished his second year at U of I and is doing well.

You never know why your paths cross with some people. You never know the impact they will have. I knew Greg was special but I had no idea that he would end up being so special to my family."

GC: “I just recently graduated with my Master’s degree. Nicole wrote a recommendation letter on my behalf. I think it is fair to say that Umoja has had a hand in my success since high school and I know that they are always there for me.

It’s hard to give useful advice to students that will reach them. So many different factors play into a student’s experience that it is nearly impossible to say anything that will be relevant to the majority. However, I think any student should embrace challenges. Don’t be afraid of change and seek out opportunities that will help you get closer to your main objective. Think bigger than your environment and don’t settle for the easiest route. Most things worth obtaining require hard work and dedication.”

*Photographs (top to bottom): Greg Copley, as photographed by Jacare on University of Illinois campus in 2015 and Jacare Thomas, photographed at the Umoja office in 2015.