Hampton, Va.— Hampton University senior J’Niyah Knox-Wilson walked into a small room at HU’s Freddye T. Davy Honors College, last Friday. With a wide smile, she introduced herself to those sitting around a rectangular table before taking her seat. She seemed confident and well prepared for what was about to take place, a mock interview designed to prepare her for the last stage as a finalist for two prestigious awards including the Rhodes Scholarship.
Knox-Wilson, who is from the city of Newport News, is the second finalist named by the Rhodes Trust. It is the first time in the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities that two finalists have been named in the same year. Senior Alyssa Seunarine, a chemical engineering major from Barbados, was the first HU finalist named this year.
“It makes me and our department feel validated,” said Dr. Sabin Duncan, director of the Freddye T. Davy Honors College. “Having two Rhodes finalist is unprecedented among HBCUs. It represents the amount of sacrifice and work that we have done as a department and Dr. William R. Harvey's confidence in us.”
Since 2013, Knox-Wilson's freshman year at HU, she has maintained a 4.0 GPA, all while working a part-time job and competing as a student-athlete in track and field.
By all accounts, Knox-Wilson is an over-achiever. In high school she maintained a 4.0 GPA. However, few know the struggles she has had to overcome.
During Friday’s interview, Knox-Wilson was asked what fuels her success. After describing her personal adversity, she added, "I could just see where I could end up and I did not want to do that. I wanted to do something better for myself. It was time to end that cycle,” she said.
In an effort to balance work, school and sports, Wilson, who is majoring in political science, maps out each week beforehand, leaving little time for idle play.
While Knox-Wilson has worked hard to get where she is, today, she knows that she could not have done it without the help of Dr. Duncan and her professors.
“The most important thing is vetting the students,” said Dr. Duncan. “There are a lot of talented students but, in this case, they need to be talented and coachable. We have bypassed students who were talented, but you couldn’t tell them anything. For the students, they have to put their faith in us that there is a vision larger than themselves and that we are going to help them along the way.”
Dr. Duncan met Knox-Wilson during her sophomore year at HU. He said, “She has the zeal to learn, the willingness to be coached and an effervescent spirit that endears her to others.”
Following the blueprint laid out by Dr. Davy, Dr. Duncan and his department have made great strides in helping students achieve such high recognition.
In 2012, Dr. Davy and Dr. Duncan had the privilege of seeing HU Alumnus Kendyl Crawley-Crawford chosen as a Marshall Scholar and, in 2011, HU's valedictorian and former Student Government Association President Jeffrey Eugene was named a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship. The department has also groomed 2016 Schwarzman Scholarship winner, Ivana Thomas, 2014 Rhodes finalist, Joshua Gopeesingh and 2015 Rhodes Finalist, Tanesha Johnson.