Being first is nothing new to Destiny Nelson-Miles. She’s always been an academic standout. She graduated first in her class at Woodlawn High School. And more recently, she has been celebrated as the first Birmingham Promise student to graduate from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
But being “first” isn’t the most impressive thing about Nelson-Miles.
When she graduated as valedictorian of her high school, she’d already amassed 69 hours of college credit through Birmingham City Schools’ Early College Program. As the 19-year-old walked across the stage at UAB to receive her diploma, she boasted a 3.88 grade point average and the honor of being the outstanding finance student graduating from the Collat School of Business.
And she did all this while working at Jones Valley Teaching Farm – initially as a high school intern, then as an apprentice, finance intern and for more than a year as a part of the staff in the Finance Department.
Starting in June, she’ll be a full-time Finance Development Program (FDP) analyst at Regions, officially launching her post-college career.
“Destiny is a great example of the students in Birmingham City Schools who have big dreams and who will seize every opportunity we give them to learn and grow,” said Samantha Williams, executive director of Birmingham Promise. “Our job is to give students like her as many opportunities as possible and then watch them do all the wonderful things they are capable of doing.”
Ask Nelson-Miles to share the secret sauce to her success, and she can name a long list of ingredients, starting with her parents. As she grew up in Woodlawn, her mom and dad encouraged her at every step. For every “A” Nelson-Miles chalked up at the end of a school year, her mom even paid a $100 incentive.
“They’ve really allowed me to shape out my future and supported me through each decision I’ve made and coached me through the difficult ones,” said Nelson-Miles, who has four older siblings and one younger sister.
Add to the mix Nelson-Miles’ own work ethic and drive. “I’m not a perfectionist,” she said. “I just like things to be very great or the best they can be.”
Jones Valley Teaching Farm has played a major role, including its internship program. “Through that experience,” Nelson-Miles said, “I gained professional skills and work experience that helped with me when I was studying finance and post-internship opportunities.”
Birmingham Promise provided support through its scholarship program as Nelson-Miles began her studies at UAB. While she had other assistance to cover tuition, Birmingham Promise’s student support fund assisted her with books and housing expenses during her first year at UAB.
Nelson-Miles initially applied to the Birmingham Promise program in case of unexpected tuition costs and other unforeseen financial issues. “You’re always mindful that you may lose a scholarship or that it might not cover everything,” she said. “Just having that financial security going into college was very comforting.”
Also important to her college success were Birmingham Promise supports that went beyond money. Birmingham Promise assigns a success coach to every scholarship recipient, and UAB facilitates not only academic support but also valuable peer support among Birmingham Promise students.
As she entered UAB, Nelson-Miles was connected to Birmingham Promise students who were already enrolled, and they along with faculty mentors helped her navigate college and make the most of her experience on campus, in ways that went beyond the classroom.
“I learned that being a full, well-rounded student can really affect your college experience,” she said, referring to social and extracurricular activities that enriched her time at UAB while providing opportunities to further develop her leadership and other life skills. Part of those skills involved being a mentor to other students when her time came.
Upon graduating April 29, Nelson-Miles found herself in the spotlight – not an entirely unfamiliar experience for her, but a little more intense than she anticipated. She has been interviewed by media organizations and featured by Birmingham City Schools and UAB. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin recognized her accomplishments at a meeting of the Birmingham City Council, saying young people like Nelson-Miles are the reason his administration launched Birmingham Promise. “We are removing barriers and allowing our young people to achieve their dreams and fulfill their potential,” the mayor said.
Williams, the executive director of Birmingham Promise, said Nelson-Miles’ experiences highlight the way Birmingham Promise can assist students in Birmingham City Schools during their time in college. Most of the time, it includes tuition assistance. But not always.
“We’re much more than a scholarship program,” Williams said. “If students don’t have other scholarships or grants to pay for tuition, providing that assistance is a huge deal. But even if they have tuition covered, we are still there throughout their college years to help them tackle barriers that might stand in their way.”
Nelson-Miles is grateful for each person and program that played a role in her journey to date.
Examples include the Birmingham City Schools’ Early College Program, which allows students to get a jumpstart on college and also pays the tuition.
That program supported Nelson-Miles in accomplishing her first two years of college, and its coordinator at the time, Dana Marshall, helped give her a big vision for the future. “She really encouraged us to dream big and really pushed us to be the best we could be,” Nelson-Miles said.
Jones Valley has been a part of Nelson-Miles’ life dating back to Oliver Elementary and Putnam Middle School, where she participated in multiple programs offered by the organization. She was a part of the high school internship program at Jones Valley before it was a part of Birmingham Promise.
Jones Valley ultimately promoted her and gave her a staff job in finance administration, where she works on budgets, financial operations and revenue initiatives.
Along the way, the Youth Pathways and Experiences Manager at Jones Valley helped her identify finance as her chosen field of study and gave her a piece of advice that she believes is among the best she ever received: “Curiosity is your best friend regardless of your dreams.”
“I’ve carried that advice with me, and it has helped me stay open to different opportunities,” she said. “Just staying curious has helped me to showcase my skills and learn new ones.”
Naturally, “stay curious” is among the advice she’d offer to other students just making their way through Birmingham City Schools. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” she said. “Just having curiosity will help you think about your actions and really put thought into what you can do with your life.”
She has other tips:
Don’t wait to the last minute to start and finish projects. Good time management was critical with helping Nelson-Miles juggle school work and her other activities.
Get as much experience as you can. The one downside to her early college success, Nelson-Miles said, was that she graduated before she had a chance to experience even more kinds of internships, she said.
Don’t miss out. “A lot of different programs offered by the city of Birmingham and Birmingham City Schools can be beneficial to all students,” Nelson-Miles said. “I would just say that you should apply to all of them and make sure you’re benefiting from each opportunity.”