George Washington is labeled an "engine of inequality" by the Education Trust, a nonprofit focused on education, because it accepts few students from "working-class and low-income family backgrounds."
Jackson's scholarship covered the nearly $45,000 tuition (higher than his native D.C. Ward 8's annual median income), books, his dorm, and also put $1,700 on a student card for food and household supplies each semester.
Over the last four years, 29 students received the same scholarship, given to D.C. seniors from a variety of backgrounds. Of those 29, five are from Ward 8. Even so, three of those five attended Thurgood Marshall Academy, a law-themed college-prep school, where just about everyone continues on to college. Nothing like Jackson's high school.
He'd planned to study astronomy all his life. His mother pushed him toward science in part because she'd always loved it. As a child, her Styrofoam and coat-hanger replica of the solar system won the school science fair. She pushed him to explore the world—the universe—in hopes that he'd understand that it had more to offer than the short reaches of Southeast D.C. But in tenth grade, Jackson looked into job prospects for astronomers.
Before senior year, he attended a summer program at Stanford University, where he found that astronomers spend little time staring into space. Ever the pragmatist, he decided on aerospace-engineering, which offered a median salary above $100,000, some reaches into the sky, and held plenty of job opportunities.
At George Washington, Jackson enrolled in 17 credits his first semester. He had calculus, Japanese, chemistry, and two engineering courses. All his life, he'd waited to be here, among the elite.
On the first day of school last fall, Jackson sat in his calculus class among some 15 other students. None were Black. Jackson wore a striped hoodie, jeans, and old blue sneakers. He didn't have money for "first-day" clothes, but he'd grown used to that.
As the teacher's assistant discussed the lesson plan, Jackson thought, "OK, I'm gonna be alright." Much of the material outlined for the first week seemed to be a review of his senior math class. He sat through his chemistry lecture, Japanese, and afterward met up with his roommate, Llewellyn "Xavier" Richie. Richie was the other student on scholarship from Ward 8. He was Black, from a similar background, and the two had hit it off immediately. Around 8 p.m., the two headed to CVS. As they talked about the first day, Jackson got a call.
His girlfriend's sister, only in her 30s, lay dying of a heart condition at United Medical Center in Southeast. He and Richie hopped on a train. They offered to spend the night, but Jackson's girlfriend, a senior at Ballou High School, told them to get back to school. Soon, his grandfather would die. Soon after, someone would gun down his cousin.