Tue | Nov 28, 2023

23-y-o J’can surprised by US college’s top award

Published:Thursday | May 19, 2022 | 12:07 AMAsha Wilks/Gleaner Writer
Alex Ashley of Lafayette College is the winner of the Pepper Prize and will be the valedictorian at this weekend’s graduation.
Alex Ashley of Lafayette College is the winner of the Pepper Prize and will be the valedictorian at this weekend’s graduation.

Twenty-three-year-old Jamaican Alex Ashley never imagined that he would one day be shortlisted for the Pepper Prize – the most prestigious award at the Pennsylvania-based Lafayette College – and certainly didn’t believe he could win it.

Growing up in the Treadways area of Linstead, St Catherine, with his father being a farmer and primary school teacher and his mother teaching at a high school, he and his sister – who is now pursuing a medical degree – had to work hard to overcome many challenges, some of which were financial.

The Campion College alumnus recalled taking the three-hour trip to and from his St Andrew-based alma mater for seven years, leaving out before daybreak – as early as 4 a.m. – and arriving home at 10 p.m., having spent his afternoons at basketball practice and working on projects.

Homework and revision would often take him into the night, with a few hours rest before starting the cycle again.

“It was difficult, to say the least,” said Ashley, who graduated from fifth form in 2016.

At a crossroads after completing sixth form, he received a full scholarship, covering airfare, boarding, food, and other expenses to study chemical and biomolecular engineering at Lafayette College. It came as a relief as his parents had taken the bold risk to use their nest egg to pay for his SAT classes.


The first year of his four-year programme was the most challenging, Ashley recalled, having to adjust to a new country and maturing into an adult on his own. He also came fact to face with racial biases he had not experienced in Jamaica.

“This a something they don’t tell you when they talk about people who go to study overseas. People like me weh come from country, with your parents dirt poor and no have no money. Essentially, you are the only person here, so you have to figure out everything on your own,” he told The Gleaner.

His first priority was to find a job on campus and then connect with other Jamaican students to build a support system.

“School isn’t just meant for you to get an education. School is a place for you to network and meet people because to make it in the world and to reach places, [it’s not only] what you know, but who you know,” he said of a lesson he learnt very early. “You grew up learning that if you work hard, you’re going to be successful, but it’s far more complicated than that.”

He then decided to make an impact.

“It’s not fair, especially to international students who don’t even have names that are known, because it’s not like it’s your country. Nobody nuh know the name Ashley, so it’s very hard for first-generation students,” the youngster said. “But hard doesn’t imply impossible, so it just mean say we have to work harder.”

And that he did!

Ashley’s academic achievements, inspirational and leadership qualities, and good rapport with his professors at the 196-year-old college led to him being named one of the top 10 most impactful people among the 3,000-plus student population and, later, the 2022 Pepper Prize recipient.

As a result, Ashley will have the honour of speaking as the valedictorian during the college’s graduation on Saturday.

His closest relatives, who would have been otherwise unable to afford to attend the ceremony, have also received an all-expenses-paid trip, with Lafayette College footing the bill for airfare and housing for them to celebrate the occasion. They will also be treated to a dinner and observe the ceremony seated among dignitaries.

“Mi never expect fi win at all. Me weh come from country, bush? Nobody nuh know where mi live,” he said, noting that Jamaicans made up less than one per cent of the student population, which is 80 per cent white.

“It finally feels like I’m finally giving back to my parents. I’m finally making due on their investment,” said the proud Ashley, who will move on to Drexel University in Philadelphia come September to pursue a PhD in Chemical Engineering, conducting research in the solar energy field as he seeks to help combat the global climate crisis.