Seven years ago, Stephen Jones stepped outside his west Louisville home and was grazed by a bullet from a drive-by shooter. Today, he steps outside his comfort zone to seize opportunities at Eastern Kentucky University.
The story of Jones’ life reads like a movie script. When Jones was 9, his parents separated, leaving him without a father figure. When he was in the fourth grade and then again as a middle schooler, an older brother was tried for murder. In seventh grade, the drive-by shooting outside his home occurred. A year later, he lost a close friend to gun violence. In high school, he endured a series of injuries immediately before his sophomore football season.
Jones did not let those obstacles stop him. “There aren’t any excuses for me,” he said. “I’ve been around gangs, drugs and violence, but it was up to me to make the right decisions. And I did.”
One of those choices was to pursue a college education at EKU, where he is a junior clinical psychology major, Rodney Gross Scholar and McNair Scholar, while maintaining a 3.2 GPA. He plans to keep going, eventually pursuing a doctoral degree.
Jones grew up in an area known for crime and gang activity, but with a strong sense of community. He recalled that once his parents separated, contact with his dad was “hit and miss,” leaving his mother to play both parental roles. His brother faced his first of two murder trials soon afterward. Though his brother was found innocent both times, Jones found the trials difficult to watch. The absence of both his father and his brother left him without a positive male role model.
“I don't think I had anybody to look up to besides my mother,” he said. “She set the standard, and now I have to set it higher for my nephews, nieces, anyone that's looking up to me.”
Jones’ mother continually emphasized to her son the importance of getting an education. She, and other friends and family members, saw education as the ticket out of the poverty, crime and violence that plagued Jones’ neighborhood. In their eyes, if anyone could rise above such circumstances, it was Jones. “Everybody always told me I'm the chosen one,” he fondly recalled. “I don't know what that actually means. I know what they want it to mean, but I’ve got to make it happen.”
The violence Jones had witnessed hit home when he was shot. He simply found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He described standing safely outside his house, safe and unsuspecting, looking out onto the street. Not a minute had passed when bullets from a drive-by shooter had begun to spray the Jones’ lawn.“It happened fast, but it happened slowly at the same time,” he recalled.
Jones was struck in the upper thigh, but survived the attack with no major injuries. A brief hospital visit revealed the wound to be superficial, but the physical and mental scars remain. Any sense of security he had felt previously was damaged. “That was a wake-up call, knowing it could happen to me,” he said. “I learned early that I had to watch my surroundings at all times.”
Jones made it through the gunfire alive, but others were not so lucky. The next year, Jones lost a close friend, 15-year-old Gregory Holt, to a break-in shooting. The high-profile Holt case is ongoing in Louisville, having been featured on an episode of MSNBC’s “Lockup.”
Few are closer to the prominent case than Jones. He was the last person to see his friend alive on that night in 2012, when Holt decided to go back to his mother’s home instead of spending the night with Jones as the two had planned. Holt went back to an empty apartment. Later that night, two men broke into the apartment, firing shots into the dark meant to kill Holt’s mother.Instead, the shots found Holt, delivering a fatal blow to the head.
The next morning, Jones got the call everyone dreads. “I thought all of this could have been prevented if he had just stayed with me that night like he was supposed to. But for some reason he just wanted to go home,” he recalled. “I don't know if I should look at it like it was meant to happen that way, that it was his time. I don't know. I have some questions I still ask myself to this day.”
West Louisville has calmed since then, according to Jones, but the obstacles kept coming. He has always loved football, but an accident nearly took the game away from him. In high school, immediately before his sophomore season, he tore his MCL and LCL. Then, he tore his ACL and hamstring in a fall at home. Though the situation was painful, both physically and emotionally, he credits it with helping him build patience. “At first, I was crying because I didn't think I was ever going to be able to play football, or even run again, because I had done so much damage to my leg,” he said. “But as time passed, I just had to be patient.”
Despite the odds, Jones did play again. He came back for his junior year and had a breakout season senior year. He even played football as a walk-on for EKU his freshman year. He has since left the team, choosing instead to focus on his schoolwork. That decision was a turning point for Jones: “I think that's when I realized I really didn't need football. I'm smart, so I have options.”
These days, Jones is taking advantage of those options at EKU. Though the campus is much different than the urban environment that nurtured him, it felt like the right fit: not too big, but not too small. Not too close to home, but just close enough. He embraced the discomfort, believing it will pay off. “You have to step outside your comfort zone,” he shared. “I feel like if you're inside your comfort zone, you're doing something wrong.”
After everything he faced in adolescence, EKU was a welcome change.“I felt like I could start over,” he reflected. “I'm in a different city, so I can meet and get connected with new people.”
Some of the most impactful people Jones has connected with have been from the University Diversity office. “Everybody in that office plays a key role in where I am today,” he said. He entered college with no scholarships. He has since earned the Diversity Office Scholarship, the Pay-It-Forward Scholarship, the McNair Scholarship and the Rodney Gross Diversity Scholarship. He credited Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Timothy Forde; Paula Hansford, former administrative assistant; and John Revere, former life skills coach in the Student Success Center, with recognizing his potential and helping him earn those scholarships.
Jones stays involved both in his campus and home communities. During the summer, he returns to Louisville to coach a youth football team. He hopes to be the mentor that he missed as a child but found at EKU. “I give them an image of somebody to look up to. If any of the kids need advice or anything, they can come to me and I'll lead them in the right direction.” Jones has even had family members give his phone number to young people seeking guidance about college and other big decisions. He finds the opportunity to help others rewarding. “Them looking up to me makes me feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.”
After graduating, Jones hopes to pursue a master’s degree and then a doctoral degree in psychology from EKU or the University of Louisville. Then, he sees himself working at the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Lexington. His family is his biggest motivation to succeed. “Family is one of the most important things to me,” he said. “I have to take care of them.” Specifically, he hopes to make enough money to help his mother retire in the next 10-12 years.
Though Jones’ drive is extraordinary and his wisdom hard-earned, he knows to slow down and savor the experiences and opportunities EKU affords him. “I'm just enjoying my time,” he said. “You only go through college once, so I'm just enjoying every moment I can.”
-- by Madison Harris, Student Writer, EKU Communications & Brand Management