He Beat the Odds To Get to UVA, Thanks to the Wahoo Community

October 17, 2023 By Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu

Jalil Jimenez did not think there was a road to the University of Virginia from his high school in tiny Ecru, Mississippi, where the population is just over 900.

Thankfully, he was wrong.

Jimenez arrived in August after a 13-hour drive with his family brought him to his new home, a first-year dorm room in Echols House.

The story of how Jimenez found his way to Grounds is remarkable. It includes the dogged dedication of a 1986 UVA School of Law alum named Matt Dolan and a quietly remarkable moment that saw Jimenez greeted by one of his biggest scholastic cheerleaders, a fourth-year student who helped him score big in his Advanced Placement Biology class.

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Expanding the Global Teaching Project with UVA Students

In May, Jimenez’s class – about 100 students – graduated from North Pontotoc High School, which sits just north of the Little Tallahatchie River and an auction house called Deals Gone Wild. It is surrounded by miles of open farmland. The average household income in Ecru is $60,760. The poverty rate is 16.13%.

It was in Ecru that the gifted student successfully completed five AP classes as he prepared to apply to college. His feat can be better appreciated when the state of public education in Mississippi is considered. According to recently released College Board data, Jimenez’s home state has the lowest level of AP course participation and performance in the country.

The situation becomes bleaker when you consider the national teacher shortage has hit the Southern state particularly hard. In 2013, the Mississippi Department of Education licensed 3,447 teachers. The number dropped to 1,624 in 2018. That year, Mississippi public schools had more than 2,100 teaching vacancies and 2,256 uncertified teachers.

David Bieger

David Bieger has been tutoring for the Global Teaching Project for three years. This semester he is a TA in an AP Physics class. He does it remotely from his apartment on West Main Street. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Luckily for Jimenez and hundreds of students like him, the Global Teaching Project exists. Founded six years ago by Dolan, the project serves 38 schools in Mississippi, has supported more than 1,000 students, and expanded from offering support in AP Physics I to include support in AP Computer Science Principles, AP Biology and AP Statistics.

Connecting the Dots in Rural, Underserved Areas

Because there are so many uncertified teachers in Mississippi, the Global Teaching Project has recruited AP-certified supervisory instructors to provide those teachers with lesson plans and technological support.

Bieger teaching in front of classroom
Bieger, left, was a TA in a Global Teaching Project summer enrichment camp in Mississippi in 2022. (Contributed photo)

Then come the teaching assistants, college students who excel in STEM-related subjects. They are each assigned a class and supplement the weekly classroom lessons with online tutoring sessions.

The teaching assistants, or TAs, come from a variety of schools: Yale, Harvard and Columbia universities and, of course, UVA. Of last year’s 56 TAs, 23 came from the University.

Dolan said Bob Jones, Francis H. Smith Professor of Physics at UVA, has been instrumental in recruiting excellent TAs. “Dr. Jones has been key to our effort from the start, offering insights from his experience growing up in rural Louisiana, and helping recruit great teaching assistants.”

“The composition of our TA group [for this year] is shaping up very similarly to prior years,” Dolan said. “UVA is certain to again be, by far, the largest source of TAs, with Yale and Harvard currently again second and third.”

He said the reason is simple.

“UVA students are smart. They are energetic. They’re engaged. Also, because the UVA TAs come from such varied backgrounds themselves, they can provide critical guidance to our students,” Dolan said. “I am very pleased that the commitment to learning and service I saw as a UVA student years ago is stronger than ever and I think they are great role models.”

Jimenez agrees 100%.

He met his scholastic cheerleader, UVA fourth-year student Marcos Gonzales, at a Global Teaching Project summer enrichment camp held at Mississippi State University in 2022.

The pair, student and TA, clicked automatically and conversations quickly turned to college applications. Gonzales gave Jimenez pointers on filling out the Common Application and ways to approach supplemental essays. From then on, they stayed in touch, exchanging occasional text messages. Jimenez said he had “so many questions” about what life at UVA was like, and Gonzales was always there with answers.

Fellow Wahoos

This August, a couple of days after Jimenez moved into Echols House, Gonzales extended a lunch invitation. The two met at Boylan Heights on the Corner for burgers and wings.

Marcos and Jalil
TA Marcos Gonzales and Jimenez are now fellow Wahoos at UVA. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“For me, I think that summer enrichment camp and meeting Jalil, that was honestly my breakthrough moment,” Gonzales recalled. “I love all my students. They are all great. They are super engaging. But he was kind of my standout student. Seeing that progression from being his TA … and now he’s a fellow Wahoo.”

Jimenez shares Gonzales’ incredulity at the situation. “I always knew that I wanted to go to college. I just didn’t know it was possible to get to a university like UVA, especially coming from Mississippi,” he said.

“I think that without the Global Teaching Project, I wouldn’t be here,” Jimenez continued. “Because that’s what really inspired me to apply my focus to applying to UVA.”

The first-year student is already looking ahead to next year.

“I want to TA for the Global Teaching Project next year,” he said during a glistening October afternoon outside Newcomb Hall. “I want to apply and give back. I think that’d be really cool.”

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications