Auriel’s Way: From Macon to Harvard…
By Scotty Fletcher
Living in a socio-economically depressed school district doesn’t mean your path in life is set in stone. With enough hard work and initiative, that path can lead all the way to Harvard and even Shanghai, China – just ask Auriel Wright.
Auriel graduated in 2015 the valedictorian of Northeast High School in Macon, Georgia. While she was there, Northeast ranked in the bottom 5% of student achievement in the state. The school’s principal, Dr. Quinton Green – and later Steven Jones, who came on board as principal Auriel’s senior year – quickly recognized Auriel’s potential and helped her create a unique learning environment.
“She had focus and the drive to go after that focus,” Jones said. “Even during the summer, she would come in and research and work on scholarships. When we saw that kind of drive, we knew we had to accommodate it. We couldn’t keep her in a box.”
Auriel’s family also recognized early on that she was special.
“She was a go-getter from the start,” said Paula Wright, Auriel’s mother. “Once, when she was in the second grade, I brought a bunch of stuff home for her science fair project. She took one look and said she didn’t want any of it – she wanted to do her own project. She did and she got an A.”
From that point on, Paula let Auriel guide the way. The next year, she encouraged Auriel to choose her own summer camp. She picked a three-week overnight camp to learn how to horseback ride.
“Sending your kids away at an early age helps them become more independent. They learn to do things on their own,” Paula said. “That separation gave Auriel the opportunity to speak up for herself and be in control.”
Auriel attended elementary and middle school in Warner Robins in Houston County, Georgia, where she excelled with perfect grades. After her father unexpectedly died in an accidental house fire when she was just 13-years old, she and her mother moved to Macon, Georgia, where Auriel attended Northeast High School.
“After her father’s death, she was determined that we were going to make it out of the situation we were in and I supported her all the way,” Paula said.
Initially, the change to Bibb County was a culture shock for Auriel.
“It was difficult at first, but even in that environment, she became an engaged student. She partnered with her teachers and the principal, told them her goals and planned out what she would do,” said Dr. Wanda West, a board member of the Bibb County School District and Auriel’s Aunt. “Whether she was in a poor, rich or middle class setting, she always understood her role in her education.”
At home, Paula, gave Auriel everything she needed to succeed. She cleared out her dining room and created a home office for Auriel. She also shuttled her to and from school when she wanted to stay after to study, which was most weekends and holidays.
“She worked the school system hard,” said Paula. “School would be closed, but I would take her, anyway, and she would stay all day until the janitors were ready to leave. That’s how serious she was. Auriel was determined to make it, so I was determined for her to make it.”
Auriel worked her way through the advanced high school classes she needed while researching additional areas of interest on her own. She volunteered with the Red Cross after school and was quickly promoted from an administrative job at the visitor’s desk to a job in the lab.
She organized an afterschool math and science program at a local elementary school, was selected for the Georgia Governor’s Honors program in biology, and hand selected her own mentor: her high school chemistry teacher (and now Science Department Chair), Tara Jones-Lawrence.
“She approached me and asked if I would mentor her,” said Jones-Lawrence. “I’ve never had a student like her. Auriel is very persistent. When she wants something, she will find a way to get it.”
Together, they worked after school, on weekends and even over Christmas break on AP biology projects, science experiments and a science fair project that went on to win a national award.
They attended multiple international science competitions together. At the last one – the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) – Auriel placed fourth in her category out of several thousand students across the world. She was also a finalist for the International Sustainable World Energy Engineering and Environment Project Olympiad (I-SWEEEP).
Since then, Auriel went on to win many science fairs and other academic awards regionally, nationally and internationally. Her mother’s home is packed with her many trophies and awards.
“Auriel had a drive to learn and she went beyond what a typical student will do. She had to work really hard to be the smartest,” Jones-Lawrence said. “I talk about her to my students now all of the time. You don’t have to be a genius to do exceptional things – you just have to work hard. Auriel has true grit and the drive to do what she has done. She worked hard to get what she wanted.”
According to Paula, there were many teachers along the way who contributed to Auriel’s success including Erika Wright, who helped her win her first scholarship award; Chiquita Dinkins, who helped Auriel acclimate to her new school and fostered her interest in biology and plant life; Donna Walker-Thompson, who turned her classroom into Auriel’s on-campus office; Robert Winborne, who was chosen as Auriel’s STAR Teacher of the Year; and Lula Curry-Williams, who converted the science greenhouse into Auriel’s temporary science lab.
Auriel, in partnership with Northeast’s Agri-Lab and Dr. Nirmal Joshee at Fort Valley State University’s research lab, went on to win first place in the FFA Organization’s National Agriscience Research Fair. Her project was on the comparison of thermotherapy and electrotherapy on soybean plants. Auriel is the first African American and female to win the competition.
“All of Auriel’s teachers played a key role in her success, but these teachers in particular brought things to another level,” Paula said.
In the eleventh grade, Auriel began teaching herself Mandarin Chinese at night online. She ended up winning a scholarship to study Mandarin in China the summer after graduating from high school and continues her Chinese studies today.
Given the option of dual-enrollment with the local college while still in high school, Auriel chose instead to stay at Northeast and focus on her scholarship applications.
“This was a science for her,” West said. “She sat down at her table in the office they provided her at school and did her research. She filled out application after application and we all got in line behind her.”
Her efforts paid off. Auriel ended up with over $1.3 million in scholarships. Finding and applying for that kind of financial aid required a lot of work on both Auriel’s part as well as that of her school.
“It was a hard year for her and for us because we really had to dive in to keep up,” said Cathy Dothard, Auriel’s high school counselor who helped her manage the scholarship process during her senior year. “When someone from Harvard called and told me what an amazing recommendation letter I had written Auriel, I was so excited – I felt like I had gotten into Harvard!”
Auriel took her process of researching and applying for scholarships and packaged it into a “how to” guide. When she is back in Georgia on breaks, she offers scholarship workshops to local students and their parents through Northeast and her church. At the workshops, Auriel explains her scholarship application process, as well as the community service component many schools look for in applicants.
Auriel has received letters of recognition for community service from both Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson.
When it came time to apply to colleges, Auriel aimed high, applying to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Duke and many other prestigious schools. She was accepted everywhere she applied. Soon colleges and universities began courting her, making arrangements for her to visit.
“They would fly her to their campus and pay for her visit,” Dothard said. “It was exposure we haven’t had at this school in a very long time.”
Ultimately, Auriel chose a full-paid scholarship to Harvard, where she is currently a sophomore. Her studies have taken her all over the world including multiple trips to China.
“Fear of failure has always been a huge thing for me,” said Auriel. “To be able to sustain myself as an individual is the only goal I really have in life. That’s what drives me everyday. “All I want is to get my mom a little house and have stability in my life.”
For Dr. West, a longtime educator and administrator, Auriel’s high school experience provided a new perspective on education.
“After watching Auriel, I learned that we should empower leadership at every level – starting with the students. We need to empower students to help themselves and open up the doors,” said West, who has followed her niece’s lead by also starting to learn Mandarin Chinese online. “Auriel is doing it her way and I love it. Our job is to help children realize their potential and their dreams.”
For Auriel, she acknowledges that her high school teachers pushed her to become an independent, more self-engaged student. She is on schedule to graduate from Harvard in 2020. After that, she’s considering pursuing an MBA.
Wherever her path leads, Auriel plans to take some time to enjoy the journey. She documents her world travels on her blog at www.aurielwright.com.
“My life has always surprised me,” she said. “I didn’t always know I would go to an Ivy League school and especially that I would matriculate – it’s all been a dream come true.”