Jessica Clifford: Wonder Teen

THS sophomore sets her sights high in life
By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Apr 25, 2014
Photo by: Donated photo Tuscola High School sophomore Jessica Clifford is pictured in her cheerleading outfit. Clifford was accepted into the Yale Young Global Scholars Program for Outstanding High School Students this summer and will be spending two weeks at Yale University.

Jessica Clifford may only be a sophomore, but she already envisions a future many teenagers don’t foresee until they reach college.

Clifford’s over-the-top test scores and her involvement in extracurricular activities at Tuscola High School have already caught the eye of Yale University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

With ACT Plan test scores ranking in the 98th percentile, Clifford was accepted into the Yale Young Global Scholars Program for Outstanding High School Students this summer. The official Yale University program accepts less than 25 percent of applicants.

“I did not think I would actually get it, so I was very pleasantly surprised when I did,” Clifford said. “I feel like this will be just another feather in my hat when I apply to colleges. I’m just excited to see the campus learn as much as I can from professors and get a feel for college.”

Young Global Scholars is a very selective leadership development program for high school students from around the world. The program is designed to bring together students with the talent, drive, energy, and ideas to make meaningful impacts as young leaders, even before they begin university studies.

In July, Clifford will be studying in Yale’s campus lecture halls and classrooms, will live in Yale’s historic residential colleges, eat in award-winning dining halls, meet a talented community of fellow students, engage with world-renowned professors and interact with extraordinary visiting practitioners.

The 2014 program offers three different themes: Science, Policy, and Innovation; Politics, Law, and Economics; and Studies in Grand Strategy. Clifford is planning to participate in the two-week long Politics, Law and Economics session.

It will cost about $5,000 to send Clifford to Yale this summer, but Clifford's mother Lisa said financial aid will help cover about half of the cost.

Clifford, who lives in Maggie Valley, was also invited to participate in the Heels for Success program at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. This is an all-expense-paid one-day summer program to help academically talented, rising tenth and eleventh-graders prepare for college.

Over the course of the day, Clifford will experience the academic, social and cultural life at Carolina while also learning about selective college admissions and ways to prepare through academic and extra-curricular achievement.

While she will get to experience college at Yale and Chapel Hill this summer, Clifford’s heart is set on studying law at Vanderbilt University. She and her mother visited Vanderbilt for the first time last weekend after being invited to Black and Gold Day.

“It’s a daunting goal,” Lisa said when asked about sending her daughter to Vanderbilt. “They receive about 20,000 applications for 1,600 openings. But if that’s her goal, I know she’ll work to achieve it.”

Clifford currently has a GPA of 4.3 and is enrolled in four honors classes and is doubling up on science and AP (advanced placement) courses — something that is not typical of a sophomore. She is also a member of Tuscola’s math club and STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) club.

“I have a pretty big workload,” Clifford said. “I’m just trying to get as many credits in as I can so I don’t have to take as many classes in college.”

Today, Clifford spends her afternoons studying SAT prep before she retakes the test next month. She took it once in December and is planning to retake the test about a half dozen times before graduating to reach her highest scores.

Outside the classroom

Aside from her academics, Clifford is currently on the THS varsity cheerleading team and runs track and field.

Clifford also excelled in gymnastics as a child, but was forced to quit after being diagnosed with hyper mobility syndrome — a condition that affects her joints.

Clifford is an only child, and Lisa has supported her as a single mom since she was a baby. Clifford said the support of her mom has only encouraged her to reach for more.

“She’s had challenges to overcome,” Lisa said. “These things would kind of slow down some kids, but she just tends to kind of take it in stride and run with it. She’s always been that way even when she was little. She was excited to start school and I never had to worry about grades with her. She always wanted make straight A’s, and she’s always done that.”

After giving up gymnastics, Clifford eventually turned to beauty pageants, which became another opportunity for her success. About two years ago, Clifford was crowned Miss Blue Ridge Valley’s Outstanding Teen 2013 and then later received a community service award in the Miss North Carolina Outstanding Teen Pageant for her work with Sarge’s Animal Rescue.

Since pageants require each contestant to choose a platform — a cause or organization a contestant promotes through her title and involvement — Clifford chose Sarge’s because she had already been volunteering with them for years.

“I worked a lot with them because it was part of my platform and because I wanted to support the cause,” Clifford said. “I guess the community service paid off and I was recognized for what I’ve done in the past two or three years.”

During her reign as Miss Blue Ridge Valley, Clifford visited different schools and organizations to give presentations on behalf of Sarge's. It was after her community service award that colleges began to contact her.

“I think after (the) Miss NC (pageant) last year, it hit me, and I decided what I wanted to do with my future,” Clifford said.

It is sometimes a challenge for both Clifford and Lisa to balance academics and so many activities, but it’s a challenge they both are up for.

“Sometimes it’s hard for her and sometimes it’s hard for me, but if we work together, she can accomplish anything,” Lisa said. “Time management is a big struggle, but we do it and it gets done.”

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