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Jessica Pierce: 1989-2006

You might have heard about three American high school students and their teacher drowning recently during a school trip to Costa Rica. The news has been all over the Web.

Kansas City Star - "Sea turned deadly in seconds: An Altamont, KS, teacher and one of his students lost their lives trying to save others."

Well, they were from my high school. And I wanted to tell you about one today because had she not perished, I know I would have been writing plenty about her later.

Her name was Jessica Pierce. And she had something special. Call it initiative, call it courage, call it whatever you want, but she was going to use it to make great things happen. She wasn't about to live by default like most people I run across.

This spring I went to my former high school and spoke to my dad's two junior AP English classes, telling them all about a no-brainer opportunity to apply to Economics for Leaders, a one-week leadership camp that sneaks in economics lessons to high school juniors.

The application is super easy -- just biographical information and one 500-word-limit writing response. No need to worry about money; it costs nothing to apply and only $100 plus travel to and from the camp to attend, pennies compared to most summer enrichment programs. Each session is held on a college campus, a great way to do some college shopping at the same time, especially for these students who mostly haven't been to more than two or three colleges in their lives. It's only a week, so your parents don't have much to whine about. And it will look great on applications for scholarships and college admissions blah blah. (But really, I want kids to go to meet other smart, motivated kids from around the country so they can make good friends and realize they can hack it away from home and compete with anyone even if they are from Smallville, Kansas.)

Jessica probably wasn't the only smart enough to "get it." But she was the only one -- out of about 35 -- who mustered enough courage to tell me she wanted to apply and to ask me for help, even though she was worried at first that her parents wouldn't like the idea.

As simple as that sounds -- "Big deal, she filled out a piece-of-cake application"-- it's a perfect example of how she was different than most.

When I personally reached out to another student her age, from a different school, I took the time to explain everything I explained to the two classes. And I asked twice, just to confirm, "So are you going to apply?"

"Yes."

So I wrote a letter to the Foundation for Teaching Economics, the organization that runs Economics for Leaders, endorsing both Jessica's and this boy's applications. I explained in great detail and with great passion how remarkable they were just for applying.

Then three weeks later, when I learned Jessica had been accepted (no surprise) I asked the boy's brother, whom I started helping with his college decision over a year ago, if the boy had been accepted.

"I don't think he applied."

"He didn't apply!?"

"No."

At first I was angry because it had taken me longer to write the letter of endorsement than that boy would have spent completing his application. But then I saw the good in it -- his lack of action must have made my words about Jessica come to life when the selection committee read them. The boy who Ian raved about didn't even apply. Wow, Jessica really is one of a kind.

Then Jessica told me one other student in her class had applied without telling me. Not that telling me was a requirement, but it's sad that when you don't communicate, you don't get all the help that's available to you. I would have included her in the endorsement letter, too.

The other girl was accepted, but had told Jessica she probably wouldn't actually go. So I went to speak with her to find out if she could not attend for a legitimate reason or she just needed a little nudge.

"Are you really not going? I think you'd have a great time."

"I don't think I returned my acceptance paperwork on time."

"You don't think? Well, when did you mail it?"

"My mom was supposed to send it."

"Well, did she?"

"She said she did and they told her it was too late."

"But it's only two days past the deadline for returning your acceptance form right now. If you sent it late, it's impossible that they've received it already and so quickly called your mom to say they're kicking you out of the program. They accepted you because they want you. They're not going to TRY to prevent you from going. Are you sure your mom sent the forms?"

"Well, no. But I know she didn't want me going so far from home. (The girl had been accepted to a program near Boston at Babson College.) I've never been outside the four-state area."

"Well there's no better time to go than now. Especially if you have even an inkling of a dream to go to a college outside this area, you should start going now to get your parents used to the idea. It's only a week...Look, this is your application. If you want to go, you have to make sure your application is complete. Find out if your mom sent the papers. If not, call the Foundation and tell them you're sending them today. If your mom says you can't go because of the $100 fee, explain to the Foundation why you can't pay, and I’m sure they'll waive the fee. If they won't, let me know and I'll pay for it. If it's that your mom doesn't want you going so far from home, ask the Foundation to put you in a program closer to home, maybe one you can drive to. And if it's the plane ticket, let me know, and I'll cover it. Here's my email and phone number in case you didn't write it down last time I was here (or in case she wouldn't ask my dad who she sees every day in class).

"Okay. I will. Thank you so much for your help."

Haven't heard from her since.

Jessica, though, I kept hearing from her. She wanted to talk about picking a college and paying for it. So we talked for about four hours. I explained to her why she didn't have to worry about the money, especially if she went to an elite school. I explained how the financial aid system works, and how I graduated from MIT with $907 in loans. And when I told her the most important thing for her to do (since her test scores, grades, activities, community service were all on the up and up) was to start visiting colleges now rather than wait until middle of senior year like most kids around here, she had arranged a full day visit to one of the best schools around within two weeks.

Impressive. She got things done.

In late May she sent me email to let me know she won a prestigious QuestBridge scholarship. Only 5 students in the country achieved the level above her, which is a full tuition paid for one of the elite university summer programs. She had won a test prep course, which would have helped take her scores even higher to where they wouldn't even be a factor in the most selective college admissions pools. And it put her in the top 530 of the 630 students now eligible to apply next year for one of 46 full-rides at these 14 excellent schools.

More impressive. I called her right away to congratulate her and I bragged about her to everyone I saw in LA that week. We agreed to set up a time to talk after she returned from her trip to Costa Rica to schedule a trip to visit colleges in Chicago and Boston over the summer.

The night when Jessica was taken out to sea, I was in Boston, on the Web pricing plane tickets for her Chicago/Boston trip. I was also on the phone with my friend Harriett in Chicago, arranging for Jessica to have a place to stay and a tour guide when she visited Northwestern and U of Chicago. I was making an itinerary for me to show her MIT, Harvard, Tufts, Northeastern, and any other school that sparked her interest in the Boston area. Then we were going to drive down to Providence to see Brown.

The next morning I got the bad news.

Today was her funeral. At the service, one of her best friends concluded her eulogy by reading the following from an essay Jessica had written for school or an application or something:

"We have all been given so many opportunities, and we need to make sure that we are doing everything that we can do to make the most of them."

Jessica doesn't have the opportunity to go to college now, or to see more of the world, or to find work she loves and do it with all her mind, body, and soul.

But you and so many others do.

If you run across a young person who's finding reasons to avoid doing great things, point them to this story. Perhaps they'll get it. Perhaps they won't.

If you run across parents who are confining their children's lives to the limits they long ago placed on their own, point them to this story. Help them understand how lucky they are to be able to send their daughter to college or to an internship or job 1,000 miles away. I know Jessica's parents would love to do that, just to know Jessica was living and living well. Perhaps they'll get it. Perhaps they won't.

Either way, Jessica's story will speak to those who have that special thing inside that she had. And if her legacy is having inspired even those few people, it will be a legacy of a life well lived.

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 24 June 2006 Permalink | Comments (20)

Wanna be the next Jerry Maguire?

If I did, I wouldn't want to do it in the NBA, just because I'm not crazy go nuts about professional basketball. But even if I were, I might reconsider after reading Sporting News's brutally honest profile of the job, which ends with the following line:

Says one agent, with a pause: "If I could do it all over again? I'd go into f---ing real estate."

Sporting News: "It's the big time!" by Sean Deveney

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 24 June 2006 Permalink