Pittsburgh Promise scholarship recipient defied odds

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Jahmiah Guillory is defying the odds.

Raised in the public housing community of Northview Heights, Mr. Guillory started his senior year at Pittsburgh Oliver High School with a grade point average of 1.7.

In ceremonies about a week ago, the 22-year-old graduated from Penn State University, where he majored in petroleum and natural gas engineering. The second of eight children, he is poised to start an engineering job in Morgantown, W.Va., next Monday.

"The big thing to understand is children from impoverished communities can be successful, too," Mr. Guillory said.

The pieces of his success began to fit together when he was a high school senior and heard Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, speak about how a scholarship of up to $20,000 would be possible for city public school graduates who attained grade point averages of at least 2.25.

Mr. Guillory's class of 2009 was only the second to be eligible for the award for which the amount and requirements have increased.

Mr. Ghubril said if a student with a GPA as low as Mr. Guillory's earned all A's his senior year, the scholarship would be possible.

Mr. Guillory decided he could do it, even though he was taking some of the toughest courses.

"I spoke with my counselors and teachers. 'You guys all believe in me. Now it's time to believe in myself.' I knew it was possible," he said. "They said, 'All right, Jahmiah. we'll help you.' They were on me."

Mr. Guillory said he had been a good student at then-Northview Heights Elementary School, but his grades dropped at then-Frick Middle School as he put more effort into fitting in with friends than studying.

He said he pulled his grades up enough in eighth grade to get admitted to Pittsburgh Schenley High School, for which he had to get up at 5 a.m. and take two buses.

He figures he missed his first period civics class 49 times in the first semester alone.

Meanwhile, he began working in eighth grade to help provide money for his family, starting with a youth counseling job in his community.

He didn't do well enough to stay at Schenley, so he was sent to his feeder school of Oliver. He had even less time for studying as he took on a second job, this one at a mall shoe store, which lasted until 10 at night.

With his earnings, he helped his family, including seeing that his siblings had good shoes.

At school, he skipped some classes, sometimes to play cards or dice with friends.

Once he was committed to earning all A's, he continued to work the two jobs his high school senior year, but his determination was different as he stayed up until 1 a.m. doing schoolwork.

His mother, Leanna Williams, who drove him to Carnegie Mellon University for tutoring in calculus, was glad to see him more focused, saying she advised him, "Son, you've got to get back on the right track. You've got to be careful of your environment."

With his new focus, Ms. Williams said, "He said, 'Mom, I'm going to do it,' and he did."

Mr. Guillory said he had long thought he would go to college -- even was "entitled" to do so because he is gifted.

But he found out that his low GPA made it difficult to get admitted.

Based on a suggestion that someone in the oil and natural gas industry made to him when he was in 10th grade, Mr. Guillory had set his goal on becoming a petroleum and natural gas engineer.

"I saw it as an opportunity," he said.

But first he had to get into Penn State. His principal even drove an application to his home.

Mr. Guillory kept the admissions office apprised of his progress his senior year and won admission on a provisional status and was able to start classes at the Greater Allegheny campus in 2009, later moving to the University Park campus to finish the degree.

At the Oliver commencement in 2009, Mr. Ghubril spoke, and Mr. Guillory had a chance to let him know he'd kept his side of the bargain.

Mr. Ghubril recalled: "He saw me backstage. He ran to me, practically pinned me to the wall. He said, 'I did what you told me I had to do. Are you going to do what you said you would do?' "

Of Mr. Guillory's turnaround, Mr. Ghubril said, "It's just, to me, breathtaking."

Mr. Guillory's hard work wasn't over when he left high school.

He said college was sometimes "difficult, very difficult."

During college, he became the father of two children, Jahmiah Jr., age 3, and Jahmier, age 1, who live with their mother.

"Things happen, and the Lord gives you blessings," he said.

He also continued to try to provide for his siblings -- giving them shoes or money for school activities.

But he made a condition for his school-age siblings -- the youngest is 11 -- that they must make the honor roll.

His mom said he has had an "excellent impact" on his siblings.

With such responsibilities, Mr. Guillory said, "I didn't have the typical college experience."

He had little time for campus life. He belonged to the Society of Petroleum Engineers and attended his first two Penn State football games this year.

But he didn't give up.

"I knew I had to do it for everyone who believed in me," he said.

While he didn't have his final grades, he estimated his GPA is likely above a 3.0 in his major and slightly below for the cumulative average.

"He's done remarkably well while continuing to face challenges on the personal front," Mr. Ghubril said.

In addition to the Promise, Mr. Guillory received other scholarships as well as Pell and Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency grants. Summer internships also have helped to pay the bills. He estimates he is graduating with about $30,000 in debt.

Mr. Guillory tries to be a role model.

"A lot of people think because you live in the housing projects, you can't be successful. You have to be a drug dealer, a ballplayer or a rapper," he said.

But he said he is showing another way out of poverty, showing someone in his own community can make it out.

He said commencement has brought a "new set of responsibilities, new goals, new ambitions, new dreams."

Now he wants to be a millionaire before age 30.

"You've got to have goals if you want to make it in life."

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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