What Happened After a 16-year-old Chose FAMU Over Harvard

Ralph Jones’ unconventional story didn’t end with him choosing an HBCU over an Ivy League university. 

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Ralph Jones Jr. 

Ralph Jones Jr. 

There has been a swarm of media reports celebrating young African-American teenagers who have been killing it in college admissions. There are the DC-area triplets deciding between Columbia and University of Pennsylvania, the North Carolina young man who got into seven Ivy League schools and the New York teen who got accepted into all eight prestigious universities.

But what happens when an Ivy League school comes calling and you take a less expected path? What happens when you choose a different school, with less prestige, over the Ivy? What happens when a black kid decides that he would rather take his talents to Florida A&M University over Harvard University?

Ralph Jones Jr., a prodigious young man, who entered college at the age of 16 can tell you a little bit about that.

Jones first drew media attention back in 2010, when he shocked those who knew his story by choosing Florida A&M University over Harvard. At that time his path seemed clear. The then-16-year-old navigated through overwhelmingly intense social media criticism for his unexpected choice.

Does he regret it?

"No. No I don't," Jones told The Root, with zero hesitation. "It's funny … the same kinds of people who were sending me [hate mail], you know they still send it, but on the opposite side, the support I've received has been immeasurable over the past four years. The opportunities I've had afforded to me I don't think they could've afforded to me anywhere else.

"I was at Lockheed as a freshman, I interned at Apple with only two years under my belt. The things that I did there I don't know anyone else who has done anything like me and I have friends at Cornell and Boston University and Georgetown and … they don't have it,” he enthused. 

"My résumé [is] one that I think is arguably comparable to any student right now in the nation who's my age and … those opportunities came directly or indirectly from my time at FAMU. I don't see myself doing anything differently in retrospect," Jones added.

By now, Jones should be prepping for his graduation … but as it turns out going to FAMU over Harvard wasn't the only path-least-taken upon which he embarked.

"As much as I grew professionally and maturity-wise while I was at FAMU, I also grew spiritually, and as a result to that, my sophomore year was my last year," Jones said.

So he forfeited the remainder of his full scholarship for his spiritual journey and attended the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry in his hometown of Atlanta. He planned to resume his studies in engineering after he was done.

"Being that I was so young, I decided I'd follow through on that. I was only 18 at the time, so I had years under my belt and I decided that I'd return to FAMU at the completion of the program … especially since I had plenty of time to do so," he said.

But the story got a bit more complicated.

During his studies at Bethel, Jones started working at Apple in the iOS division. He wanted to graduate and pursue his studies freely with no debt—it was part of the reason, after all, why he attended FAMU which gave him a full ride, instead of Harvard, which only gave him a partial scholarship.

However, while working at Apple and getting paid well for what he had to offer, Jones' team leader pointed out to him that completing his degree would get him almost twice his paycheck as an iOS software engineer.

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Ralph Jones Jr.

Ralph Jones Jr. 

"That ignited a fire in me to want to finish my degree sooner rather than later," Jones said.

And so he started looking for a way to finish his degree concurrently with his studies at Bethel. He was accepted into Arizona State's software engineering program but he met a roadblock ... or a money block as it were. He discovered there was a $15,000 hold on his FAMU account—showing that the last semester of his sophomore year was not funded by his scholarship, and rendering him unable to verify his grades with an official transcript to Arizona State.

"I don't think that it's necessarily negligent on the university's part. I think a lot of changes happened since I was last a student there and I completely respect and honor that the registrar's office and the financial aid office ... ha[ve] to abide by what's in their system," he said. "It's just a matter of trying to work around that."

It was also a matter of timing, he speculates, and misunderstanding.

"I didn’t know about this hold until after I was long gone," he said. "I didn't find out until I got ready to apply elsewhere."

Roadblocks aside, Jones is content with his life and what he's doing right now. He's currently teaching iOS software design at his alma mater, Frederick Douglass High School, and hoping to head back to Apple soon to continue his job there.

"More than anything, FAMU taught me how to brand myself. What I didn't realize then, possibly due to lack of maturity, is that you are not your brand—not always. Who you are is so much more defined by your character as opposed to what you do," he said.

"I am so fortunate to have learned the skills and have the foundations [at FAMU] to make me a contender in the corporate world," Jones added. "It is my hope in the next year that I can begin to offer those skills to high school students at my alma mater this year, making them just as competitive and yes, I have already started pitching FAMU to them in the process."

Of course, the 20-year-old does intend to go back to finish his degree eventually. He'll be finished with Bethel—what he calls "possibly the most rewarding year of his life"—in 2015.

"I think I learned more about myself this year than anything at all and I feel grateful that I went. I’m so thrilled with the decision that I made there because the person that I was when I was at FAMU, he was talented, he was filled with potential, but he was also insecure and he was scared," he said.

Before Jones left to follow his spiritual path he says that he was racked with anxiety over his choices, particularly after the national attention he gained by turning down an ivy league school for an HBCU and then leaving FAMU for a spiritual education.

"I was completely unsure how people would respond when they found out I was finding my identity elsewhere. How would the supporters feel about me now? Was I certain that who I was was good enough, and could I stand by my decisions on a bigger stage than just around my family and friends," he said, adding that such concerns were part of the reason why he decided not to respond to interview requests for a while.

But in the end he is happy to have chosen the path less traveled.

"The person that I am now ... he's smart and he doesn't need other people to validate him, and I think that's definitely a power greater than me that's working there."

He quotes from one of his heroes, the pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, Calif., and founder of the Bethel ministry school, Bill Johnson, saying, "If you don’t live by the applause of man, you won’t die by their criticism."

Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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