Rising senior builds website to help minorities with inequalities during college application process
Jesika McDaniel always knew she was going to college. She was constantly motivated by her mother, who infused McDaniel with the message that she would do great things in life. She assumed that everyone’s parents are like that.
But when she worked with local kids as a teenager at a rec center in her hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, she found that wasn’t always the case. The kids were intelligent but didn’t get positive encouragement at home or school, which often resulted in academic struggles. When she worked with them, she noticed that they not only understood what she taught, but that they loved it.
“They started talking about their aspirations and their dreams coming from the Black community,” said McDaniel, now a senior in biological systems engineering, which is both in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering. “A lot of parents and a lot of our people don't push college that much unless they have the privilege to be in an education system or a county that encourages our students to go to college, or sometimes even graduate from high school.”
Those inequalities inspired McDaniel to change that.
After her summer internship was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she sat at home and thought about how she could help others. Then the idea came to her: create a website that offers guidance on choosing colleges, helps navigate the application process, and reviews college essays.
Dreams2Degrees was born.
The website is dedicated to providing information for high school and middle school students — especially for minorities, first-generation, and low-income students that want to pursue higher education.
She wants to encourage students during the college application process, something that was missing for McDaniel outside of her immediate family. Her high school counselor advised her against graduating early — something McDaniel did anyway at age 16.
“I want them to know that no matter what, your dream is your journey. You go ahead and do what you need to do. I set up the website to make things look very simple for students — and especially for parents,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel’s high school was in a heavily white and rural area where she was surrounded by high-achievers.
“The kids were really smart and all vying to be top in their class. They would always talk about going to college or where they had been accepted. They came from families with multiple degrees,” McDaniel said. “My mom has that, too. But I realized that not everybody has those same advantages.”
She realized that there can be a disconnect with kids from different backgrounds and that she could challenge and push them forward.
“I needed to encourage these students by reminding them that they do belong in college — that they could make it there,” McDaniel said. “There were so many times after telling people I wanted to go to college or be an engineer that they would tell me I couldn’t do that because I’m a girl or because I’m Black. I thought to myself ‘OK, that’s fine.’ So, I did it for that reason — to show I can do this. I can be successful and then also bring that back to other students. I grew up and look where I'm at now — at a premier university.”
The website, in some aspects, is an evolution of a group in which she participated during high school called Greensboro Youth Leadership. McDaniel visited high schools and helped kids understand their career options.
“A lot of the kids who are Black need to know they can go to school for more than just playing sports. There are thousands of other career options that they need to be introduced to,” McDaniel said. “It only takes one time for a kid to fall in love with something.”
While visiting a school, McDaniel started speaking with a young high school girl as they worked on a science project together. As the pair worked, the girl started talking about how much she wanted to be an architect, but her mother kept telling her that construction is for boys.
“I told her there is so much you could do with architecture. Math, science, communication, and design skills are all part of the field,” McDaniel said. “At the end of that day, you don’t want someone to not do something because they were told not to even try. I want to tell students to go after their dreams, because if they’re not, who else is going to?”