« Wanna be the next Jerry Maguire? | Main | Misinterpreting advertising »

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?"


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!?"


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


Hi Ian,

I'm an I.T. student at university in Australia. I've passed up opportunities in the past for various reasons, none of which were really very good reasons. So this post made me think, and encourages me to make sure I take opportunities that are available to me. Reading about Jessica was inspirational to do more, achieve more, and be more. Hopefully it'll stick with me, and I'll keep at it.

Thanks for posting it.

Posted by: Sam Browning at June 27, 2006 08:29 PM

People that make things happen. It is astonishing how rare they really are, and how easy it is to join the club. You know, I have met "doers" that have regrets, but they are usually that they did not take more risks. Thanks for reminding me that membership is a worthy thing, and renewable every day when I wake up.

Posted by: Alex at June 28, 2006 07:29 PM

challenging and motivational - thanks

Posted by: Mark R at June 29, 2006 09:59 AM

thank you for posting this.

Posted by: annab at June 29, 2006 11:56 AM

I work very hard alongside my parents so that we can jointly afford to place me at an especially prestigious school in an area full of academic and economic and social opportunity. But for the last few months I've been feeling drained, starting to stall. The potential was there to be less spectacular than I could be. Not to give up completely, but to sort of lose the soul and the drive and just plod through things.

I feel I was exactly the right person to read this; am so glad I had the fortune to stumble on it. Thanks very much for important and inspiring thought.

Posted by: a.m. at June 29, 2006 04:18 PM


Ramit turned me on to this post. It really hit me hard. I turned around and wrote my own (Action Is The Killer App), which links back to this one:


Jessica was truly an amazing girl.

Posted by: Chris Yeh at June 29, 2006 07:33 PM


Makes you so happy to be alive. Jessica was truly and amazing person.

Posted by: Anas at June 30, 2006 06:03 AM

Sounds awesome. Pity I don't get any opportunities. What I can do is just leave my home country and go work at a restaurant in Ireland or something like that. That sounds perfect. All thanks to that all inspiring tale of Jessica, the brave, brave 19 year old girl. Brave.

Posted by: Xcite at June 30, 2006 07:32 PM

Thanks for posting this.

Posted by: Eoghan McCabe at July 1, 2006 04:42 PM

Thank you so much for this. It's a principle I live by - and at least two of those opportunities has changed my life for the better. Thank you thank you thank you.

Posted by: Tiara at July 4, 2006 03:22 AM

Thank you Ian.

Posted by: Fitz at July 4, 2006 04:07 PM

Hey, Thanks for sharing this with all of us. I too passed some opportunities in life for no logical reasons..being near parents et al. Then i realized I need to do well, else i can never help my parents or anyone. Luckily i was able to attend my dream school ( in a different country from where my family lives) and its all worth it. Right now i am trying to find a way to get to grad school, i am working on required scores/exp and money part of it. I am hoping i can reach there.

Posted by: cahoots at July 5, 2006 06:34 PM

First post I read on here - came from Ramit's blog.

This is a very touching story - inspiring and sad at the same time. Thank you for posting this, and my condolences go out to Jessica's family, and those of the others who drowned.

Posted by: David at July 9, 2006 05:34 AM

I have been a co-chair for the last year with someone who is like this. She is truly inspiring. She just takes action! What I keep wondering is what do people who are like that think, and how do they think? If your impulse is to say, "They just do it!" then I would venture that taking action is an unconcious ability for you (like dancing is for me, which is why I am not a good dance teacher.) I want to make those thoughts expicit. I think Seligman has made a good start with his books about optimism. That same friend and I started an art group along with some other friends, and I am starting to get the feel of just taking action through doing art. Our motto is: If in doubt, make something.

By the way, for any procrastinators out there who just feel guiltier now: the book The Now Habit by Fiore is just the best ever book to help you get over procrastination. Seriously, following the advice made my second year of grad school way easier and more enjoyable than the first!

Posted by: April at July 10, 2006 01:45 PM

Thanks, I really needed to read this article today

Posted by: Kandis at July 10, 2006 04:01 PM

very inspirational, thanx.

Posted by: Christopher Johns at July 20, 2006 03:37 PM

Thank you for posting this. I'm considering applying for top graduate schools, but my GPA is very bad. Now, I see the world differently, and I'm going to rewrite my Statement of Purpose.

Posted by: simpleblob at July 21, 2006 02:09 AM

Thank you, Ian, for posting this. Very inspirational.

Posted by: Gin at July 22, 2006 05:06 AM

Hi Ian, my name is Katrina, and I was one of Jess' friends from Debate & Forensics.. Thankyou sooo much for writing this. People don't realize how much opportunity they have, but Jess did. I'll tell anyone I can about this story.

Posted by: Katrina at August 24, 2006 11:28 PM


I've been having a rough couple of weeks at school (for personal and academic reasons) and I've had the email you sent me with this link since, well, since you sent it. I don't know why, but I clicked on it and it reminded me of everything I loved about Jessie. It reminded me why I'm here, all the work I've put in, what I have ahead of me because of that. It's amazing that, even now, 3 and 1/2 mos. after the fact, they are all still inspiring me.

Amanda Clark

Posted by: Amanda C at September 21, 2006 01:16 AM

Post a comment

Remember Me?