photographs by Heather Simmons
When 17-year-old Reginald White, Jr. debates in school competitions, he often wins. Yet there is one adage even this clever debater won’t argue: “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.” Even while on summer break, the Southwind High School senior persistently pursues his academic goals.
Last June, the teen started a paper for his senior AP economics class more than a semester early. The paper would form a major part of his grade, but Reginald had a more compelling reason to sacrifice his summer break. He hoped to earn an invitation to the prestigious Global Youth Institute, an annual symposium held in conjunction with the World Food Prize Symposium. To be invited, he needed to produce an outstanding paper and earn his teacher’s recommendation.
He chose to concentrate on the history, economy, and political turmoil of the West African country, Sierra Leone. “My teacher provided some ancillary resources and I built off of that,” he says. The resulting paper, Sierra Leone: Conflict Diamonds, Civil War, Corrupt Government and other Economic Barriers, impressed his teacher Biba Kavass. “She said it was one of the best papers she had ever seen.”
With that, she recommended him for the Global Youth Institute.
Last fall, the teen joined 149 other high school students from the U.S. and other nations at the institute in Des Moines, Iowa. During the three-day event, students met Nobel and World Food Prize Laureates, and discussed pressing food, security, and agricultural issues with international experts. For the second straight year, Southwind High School produced the only student from Tennessee invited to attend.
For Reginald, the experience offered his first trip by air, first chance to meet world leaders, and first time to find a broad academic kinship. With enthusiasm, he presented his research to a panel of honorary judges. “The opportunities to interact and have intelligent conversations with other students and judges were highlights.” His debate team experience came in handy, helping him to think on his feet.
“It’s interesting to see how real this issue actually is, besides the commercials you see about Feed the Hungry,” he says. “It’s nice to see somebody have an academic conversation about the whole thing.” He learned from group discussions that brought together more than 1,000 international experts and policy leaders from 65 countries. Then students switched to hands-on mode and packed 3,000 meals to be shipped to Africa.
A perk of participation is the chance to apply for the 2013 Barlaug-Ruan International Internship, an eight-week summer grant to work with scientists and policymakers at research centers located worldwide. Reginald blocked off time on his calendar in case he earns a spot.
On a scale of 1 to 10, Reginald rates the experience an 11, impactful enough to lead him to change his major from engineering to economics. With a 4.1 weighted GPA, he was offered a full academic scholarship to Morehouse College and is weighing other offers from SMU, Vanderbilt, and Howard University. According to the buzz at school, the teen will probably be voted Most Likely to Succeed, since he’s already learned the value of drive and self-discipline.
“Losing my dad at 12 made me grow up a lot faster than a lot of other people,” he explains. “He was my role model, and he made me want to do better for myself.”
Reginald lives with his mother, Trenae, grandmother, Charlene, and younger sister, Rachel. Known for achieving his goals, Reginald nurtures a creative side as well. When he’s ready to unwind, “I’ll call friends and we’ll go somewhere and make music.” In January, he became the first Southwind student to qualify for the All-State Band. He plays tenor saxophone in the band and sings R & B back-up in the Jazz Combo.
He’ll rely on his favorite quotation in the coming years. After all, his work has resulted in great success. Now that he has his pick of colleges, there’s time for a less weighty goals. “I have yet to find a John Coltraine poster for my dorm room, but I’ll keep looking.”