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“I was hungry for this kind of environment”

A scholarship enabled Ilenna Jones to enroll in a Center for Talented Youth summer program, setting her on a path toward the Ivy League and beyond
Posted November 8, 2017
Before starting her doctoral program in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania (above) this fall, CTY alumna Ilenna Jones worked with faculty in Hopkins' Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences (below). Before starting her doctoral program in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania (above) this fall, CTY alumna Ilenna Jones worked with faculty in Hopkins' Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences (below).

In the past 10 years, Ilenna Jones has graduated from Dartmouth College, studied under the direction of a Nobel Prize winner, and worked in a Johns Hopkins laboratory. In August, Jones began a doctoral program in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, and she hopes, someday, to advance treatments for neuropsychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia.

Jones knows she always had the potential to follow this path, but she credits a scholarship to attend summer programs at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth for providing the spark that ignited her achievements.

"CTY allowed me to turn toward the direction I've taken and to form the goals that I have now," Jones says. "And I've never taken that for granted."

As a student at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a STEM magnet high school in the city, Jones qualified for the school's gifted and talented program. Still, she longed for bigger challenges. Although she and her classmates competed for the highest grades, the emphasis was on attaining those grades without spending great effort in doing so. When Jones took a research course in her junior year, her teacher recognized her academic potential and offered her a brochure about CTY. Jones was interested, but wary of the cost.

"My family situation was such that my dad was going through a period of unemployment, and we were staying with my grandmother," she says. "Having anything to spend on a summer program like CTY would have been impossible."

Thanks to a scholarship established to encourage underrepresented minorities to pursue the sciences, Jones enrolled in two summer programs on the Hopkins Homewood campus in 2009. She found herself at first struck by the atmosphere, where she was surrounded by peers who had an interest in learning for learning's sake — not just for good grades. And at the end of class each day, the instructors told the students NOT to hit the books, but rather enjoy the day and one another's company.

"It was such a paradigm shift, and it seemed exceptional," Jones recalls. "I wanted it to be my new normal."

As she advanced through her genomics and genetics courses, she navigated college and even graduate-level material. She grew empowered by her increasing ability to grasp the information.

"I hadn't really been given a challenge that was exceptional for me — I'd been given things that were challenging for the average," Jones says. "I'd been doing well in school because people expected me to, but at CTY, I was doing well because I wanted to."

Since then, Jones has continued on that trajectory, from Dartmouth to a research opportunity at Stanford to Penn, her current institution. As she looks toward her bright future, she thinks every now and again about the path she's taken, and says she's grateful for the transformative experience CTY gave her.

"CTY made me realize I was hungry for this kind of environment, and I don't think I'd have known that otherwise," she says. "Now, I'm heading into a career where I'll always be in that environment, surrounded by people like that, and I can't wait."

For more information about CTY or to learn how to support scholarships for deserving students, please contact Margaret Walsh, senior director of development.