For as long as Jessica Johnson could remember, she wanted to attend Spelman College. But when it seemed unlikely that her family could afford to send her to the all-women college in Atlanta, she faced having to attend Jackson State Community College in her hometown of Jackson, Tennessee, where her father was a professor. “My mom said, ‘If you don’t get any [scholarship] money, you’ll be going to school with your dad,’” Johnson recalls. “That was enough motivation for me to get my stuff together.”
With the “threat” of going to college with her dad looming, Johnson, 21, had to act fast. She was 16 when a counselor at her local Boys & Girls Club told her about the react Take Action Awards, scholarships for students who are heavily involved in their communities. Only five students in the country would receive the top prize of $20,000 for college. Johnson applied, along with 11,000 other students, and won. That encouraged her to apply for more scholarships. “I was only a junior in high school,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, I can make this scholarship thing work for me.’”
And she did.
By the time Johnson entered her senior year at North Side High School, her choice of college had changed. After learning that Spelman didn’t have a school of communications, the budding public relations practitioner set her sights on Howard University in Washington, D.C. Although Howard was less expensive than Spelman, she still had to find a way to pay for the university’s $10,000-a-year tuition. She applied for the JCPenney Golden Rule Award and won $500, then received $1,200 in a pageant sponsored by the local chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. And instead of waiting for Howard to come knocking, “I went to the school I wanted to attend and asked what money they had for incoming freshmen,” she says. “If you’re good enough and they want you, they’re going to find a way to get you there.” Johnson’s 3.9 grade point average and score of 29 on the ACT secured her Howard’s Capstone award, a three-year, renewable scholarship, which pays for tuition, fees, and room.
The money was rolling in, but Johnson still had to pay for meals, books, and other expenses. Johnson inquired at large corporations. She won the Discover Card Tribute Award at both the state and national levels and was awarded $17,500. Johnson continued to rack up awards throughout her senior year, and by the time she graduated in 2000, she had amassed more than $100,000 worth of scholarship money. She later launched the Minority Scholarship Quest Program (www .minorityscholarshipquest.org), helping parents and their children find money for college. What started out as a free service eventually turned into a money-making enterprise. “I was helping people at church,” she remembers. “When [the requests began coming in] everyday, I realized it was a valid business venture.”
Johnson left her hometown for college as a local celebrity, but she led the life of a typical freshman at Howard: moving into the