Published September 16, 2021
Jelyse Williams has dabbled with the saxophone, but she wanted to learn how to really play. So when she came to UB this fall, she signed up for the marching band.
“I just joined,” says Williams, 18. “I’m trying to push myself out of my comfort zone and try different things because I never know what I’m truly good at — or what things I can do that can inspire others.”
It’s that kind of mentality that helped the UB freshman become one of this year’s New York Times Scholars. One of only 12 from the high school Class of 2021 to be awarded the prestigious New York Times College Scholarship, Williams will receive up to $15,000 per academic year for full-time study at the college of her choosing — UB being her choice.
Launched in 1999, the scholarship program rewards New York City high school students who have achieved “academic excellence while overcoming hardship or other difficult circumstances.”
The Times describes it this way: “The scholarships are for students who have a sense of social purpose, an interest in journalism and a wide array of personal ambitions, and they are integral to our belief that a college education imparts lifelong benefits.”
That fits Williams to a T.
Raised in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, she is the oldest of three sisters and daughter to Jerome and Elyse — hence the name “Jelyse.”
She taught herself how to draw in the fifth grade, an accomplishment that would ignite a fire for anything else she happened to show an interest in — poetry, skateboarding, rollerblading, boxing, and writing movie and book reviews, to name a few.
It was Williams’ artistic skills that landed her at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan, where she earned membership to the National Honor Society and was known as “The Girl with 101 hobbies” because of her vast interests. Opportunities would follow.
For four years of high school, she would learn coding at Google, taking part in its Code Next program that works with Black, Latinx and Native American students to develop the next generation of tech leaders.
As a sophomore, she tapped into her interest in journalism and social justice to learn video documentary with a non-profit. There, she collaborated with other students on projects about avoiding college debt and how parents affect queer youth.
That summer, this self-described “go-getter” spent 10 days at Harvard University for intensive academic-enrichment programs in coding and business.
Williams considered pursuing a career as a brain or heart surgeon, but acknowledged she’s not “into the icky stuff.” She is now leaning toward the science behind the medicine and plans to study biomedical engineering.
She chose UB.
“I feel like it has great research opportunities and it was a more affordable price than other public schools,” she says.
“There are different clubs, a marching band, it’s a bigger campus — way bigger than I’ve ever been to before,” she says. “It has multiple opportunities, and that’s something I always love — opportunity.”
So far, Williams is enjoying freshman year. While she gave marching band the old college try, she decided to pull out. She quickly realized the commitment was simply too much with the stress and academic demands of freshman year, but is open to trying again another time.
Still, she remains grounded to her belief of getting out of her comfort zone.
Take Welcome Weekend, for example. While terrified of heights, she decided that she would try zip lining.
“When I took the first steps, it was really scary,” she says, “but I noticed going down was really fun.
“It made me realize I could apply that to any situation. The first steps are always super scary, but when you’re going down, it’s super fun.”
Jelyse, your grit and tenacity inspire me and keep me motivated! Thank you for being my roommate. You’re simply inspirational! I wish you strength.