Ohio State senior KayMesha Knox knows what it feels like to have college ambitions but not know exactly how to achieve them, especially when the obstacles seem insurmountable.
“When I was applying to college, I didn’t have much help and there weren’t a lot of resources in the high school,” said Knox, who graduated in 2013 from South High School in Columbus. “I was able to get through it by building relationships with key teachers and guidance counselors to where they would go out of their way to help me.”
She noticed, however, that many of her peers at South High lacked guidance and ultimately failed to attend college.
“That is something that has stuck with me my entire college career,” said the 21-year-old English major with an education focus.
Remembering where she came from
Knox has not forgotten her peers, and has spent the last two years trying to remove some of the barriers that prevent low-income minority students from attending and graduating from higher education institutions.
She was awarded the President’s Prize, which includes an award of up to $100,000 to create her brainchild, “Steps to Success,” a college access program at East High School in Columbus. Ohio State President Dr. Michael V. Drake created the prize to encourage students to develop bold community projects. From that amount, Knox will receive a $50,000 living stipend and be considered an Ohio State employee after she graduates in August. The rest of the funding will be used for project implementation.
The President’s Prize supports students like KayMesha advance innovative ideas in the first year after graduation. Her ingenuity goes well beyond the classroom, and her time at Ohio State, as she takes these ideas out into the community and helps students like her achieve their once seemingly out-of-reach education goals.
Through an environment of discovery, she’s been enabled to push ideas through to practice in the Columbus community, benefiting future students.
Steps to Success aims to boost high school graduation and college enrollment rates among students at East High, where Knox started a college preparation program in 2015 after volunteering as a tutor through the Office of Student Life’s Department of Social Change. Only 42.5 percent of East students who graduated in 2013 attended college within two years, according to the Ohio Department of Education, and only 3.8 percent of the 2009 class graduated from college within six years.
“The goal is to get every student to college and to graduate from college,” Knox said.
Steps to Success will help lighten 50 seniors’ financial burdens next school year by providing laptops and wireless Internet access, which many of them lack. It will also create a support system by pairing them with college mentors who can identify with their struggles.
“I’ve made a lot of one-on-one connections with a lot of my students,” Knox said. “Being able to have someone to talk to, who is in the same position as you (and) going in the same direction as you want to go is very important.”
Knox is familiar with the three main barriers that prevent low-income students from applying and attending college: lack of guidance in navigating the application process, lack of support once the student is enrolled and financial constraints.
Providing a support system
Even though her older two siblings attended Ohio State through a college access program and provided mentorship on succeeding in class, Knox felt like she was on her own when it came to funding her college experience -- a reality that stuck with her once she got to college.
She was able to pay tuition through financial aid and a scholarship from I Know I Can, a college access nonprofit that targets students in Columbus City Schools that provided her a support system through her college search process. Once at Ohio State, she found sources of personal support her Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority sisters and the Department of Social Change. Now, facing her own college graduation in August with a sense of pride and wonder, Knox knows what it is like to succeed. She has parlayed her story of struggle into a tale of success, one that can create great social change.
Ashley Pryor, program manager in the Department of Social Change, considers Knox a powerful visionary whose motivation is rooted in experiences similar to many East High students’.
“I think that is where her passion really comes in,” she said. “She can be a game changer.”