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Rising above the odds

Posted on: May 8, 2017

Growing up in the small rural town of Estill, South Carolina, Aleisha Gray has always been aware of the statement numbers can make. One stoplight. Population 2,025. Less than 100 students in your graduating class.

“The schools I attended from K-12 were ranked lowest among the nation’s worst districts and considered to be in ‘The Corridor of Shame’—a severely neglected region of impoverished education districts,” said Gray.

When faced with those odds, it might be easy to set your sights low or make excuses if life gets hard. But Gray did neither of those things. The small-town student focused on advice from her parents, worked hard in school and is now graduating with honors from the University of South Carolina with a degree in hospitality management, a restaurant management internship in hand, and a bright future ahead.

“I was blessed to be raised by both of my beautiful, cultured, and ambitious parents who instilled in me the desire to be a leader. My parents never made me feel uncomfortable about a bad grade, as long as I could look them in their eyes and tell them that I did my best,” Gray said. “That one principle stuck with me from a child and shaped me into the person I am today.”

Gray has certainly given her academic career her best and very rarely brought home a bad grade. From kindergarten through high school she earned straight A’s. At USC, she brought the same mentality and determination to maintain a GPA of 3.0 or better throughout her college years, making the Dean’s List three times and the President’s List twice.

“Some people don’t think numerical values mean very much, but they do to me,” she said. “I wanted to be my best to make my parents proud, but also to represent myself, my hometown and my teachers.”

The town of Estill can be proud as can her parents, who never went to college, but paved the way for their daughter to get there. Life has taught Gray that you can’t be too quick to make generalizations about what might come from circumstance.

“Having an underfunded K-12 school district doesn’t necessarily mean teachers aren’t doing their jobs, it just means they’re underfunded,” said Gray. “I must admit, some of the books were old and the restrooms were pretty dated, but I was there for the sole purpose of learning.”

Gray’s childhood lessons and experience have shaped her career dreams as well as her academic goals. Her efforts in high school earned her scholarship money to help pay for college, and acceptance at every school to which she applied before choosing USC.

Originally enrolled as a biology major, she switched majors after two years and will graduate with a bachelor of science in hospitality management from USC’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management (HRSM). As she begins a management internship with Red Lobster this summer, Gray is following in the footsteps of her grandfather, father and uncle, who owned restaurant businesses in the Estill area. She is also merging her personal values with her career interests.

“My parents instilled in me to be a quality person, be genuine and give people what you would want to have,” she said. "That’s hospitality. I love when I feel at home in an establishment as soon as I walk in the door. I love that feeling and I love creating that experience for other people."

Gray said her time taking restaurant management classes gave her a much better feel for the management side of an industry she knew well from other angles, having worked as a waitress, hostess and fry cook in her teen years.

"They definitely prepared me in a strategic manner," she said of the HRSM faculty, citing Chefs William Knapp and Walter Jackson as particular influences. "They're really genuine people. They enjoy doing what they do and they enjoy teaching it to us. They're very professional, but they're very fun too."

Georgia Petritsis, program coordinator and administrator in the HRSM School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management, also made an impact on Gray. "She's always there,” Gray said. “She's always really quick with her responses and always welcomes me to her office. I'm pretty sure she does it for everybody, but she makes me feel special."

Gray is keeping her mind open to whatever opportunities come her way next and will continue to focus on simply doing her best.

"I will not give up until I become the person I want to be. For myself, I know there are no excuses when you have an ultimate goal and you want to do something that has never been done before," she said. “The possibilities are really endless, and there are no limits as long as you believe in yourself.”