It’s a sunny Tuesday morning at Murrah High School and in Room 212 they’re expecting a visitor. This is the class for the school newspaper and one of the editors starts the morning conducting class business while they wait.
Students constantly trickled into the classroom that was decorated with numerous college posters. Taped next to a white smart board was a sign that read, “From Murrah: Justin P. went to Harvard. Travis R. went to Yale. Which road will You take??” with arrows pointing to two different articles on Justin Porter and Travis Reginal from the New York Times.
In walks Porter out of breath from his jog to the school. Porter recently finished his first year at Harvard after graduating from Murrah in 2012. Reginal, his classmate, was also attending an Ivy League school as and when a conversation he had with a reporter lead them to publishing articles in the New York Times. Since then, the nation has gotten a glimpse of the positivity that comes from Mississippi that is so often overlooked.
While at home in Jackson, Miss. Porter has gotten numerous requests to speak at schools, educational programs and has been invited to participate in MSNBC’s Summit on Education, all of which is overwhelming for him. “I expected like one hundred people to say, ‘oh that’s nice’ and flip to the next page,” Porter says. “I never expected family members outside of my parents to read it.”
Porter accepts the newfound fame with humility. When he returned to his alma mater, the editor of the paper who met him as a freshman and is now a junior sees him as the same old guy. “It was like nothing had even happened,” she says. “He was still the same Justin I had known since ninth grade.”
He sits at the front of the class on a stool casually dressed in a collar shirt and shorts offering advice and candid answers to questions like: What was your biggest challenge transitioning to Harvard from JPS (Jackson Public Schools)? At Harvard is there a large concentration of stuck- up people? How did you include all your interests in your application? What’s the SATII?
The students are so engaged in discussion that the teacher, Lynne Schneider, allows them to continue the conversation for longer than she’d planned. Then, Porter got a chance to gregariously tell the class how he’d suspects his suitemate was an African prince because he would travel to meet government officials in other countries in the middle of the semester. “Like we’re studying, and this dude is in Russia!” Porter says. He thinks he met the President of China’s daughter too. “The thing is they’re really secretive about her identity but I’m pretty sure it was her,” he says as the class chuckled. Porter also delves into how important college applications are, finding scholarships, and getting outside of your comfort zone to go to school out of state. “If fear is the thing that’s stopping you then you need to see where are your priorities,” he tells the class.
One question that might have lead to the most outstanding advice for his old friend who was attentively listening was, “Was it a culture shock?” He told the class that having friends that spend $150 on concerts and telling him, “It’s nothing. We ball hard,” was different for him. But when they would encourage him to spend as frivolously as they did, he would diffuse the situation with humor by saying things like, “I’m just a broke college student.” And lately, since he’s shared his experience about going from Murrah to Harvard, he’s felt like people try to craft his story as just that; a stereotypical poor little black kid who makes it big at an Ivy League school against his odds. But Porter tries to safeguard against that and it was clear to the students he spoke to and especially his former classmate, the editor who is very proud of him. “The most outstanding advice Justin gave us was not living a life that has already been lived,” she says.