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Joshua Sims figured out pretty early that he wasn’t the cool guy. He wasn’t exactly the nerd, though, either. He was something else entirely.

“I realized I was the trailblazer,” says Sims, 18. “That was me.”

A trailblazer, indeed. Sims is the first Camden school district high school senior to head to the Ivy League in over a decade. Come next fall, Sims, a trumpet player, will pack up his things and attend Cornell University – just like he knew he would.

“When it started getting closer to the date the acceptance letters went out, yeah, my hands did start to shake,” Sims says. “But the day it was happening, I felt like I knew what it was going to be. I told people, ‘I’m getting my acceptance letter today.’”

And when he did see his results, Sims didn’t behave like those viral videos of accepted students yelling and screaming, he says. Instead, the Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy senior turned to his mom and simply said,

“That’s right.”

That easy confidence and self-assuredness is certainly atypical for his age, but nothing about Sims feels like forced bravado. He would argue he’s just the product of hard work – a lot of it. Sims has known for some time that he wants to make a difference – he wants to attend Harvard Law, and one of the first steps on that path requires excellent SAT scores.

So when Sims took the PSAT for the first time and scored a 1,020 out of 1,600 possible points, he knew something had to change. That’s when he started studying for the SATs. And studying. And studying. Between band practice and serving as the president of his high school class, between practicing the trumpet on his own time and working with the nonprofit Save Our Schools NJ, Sims studied.

At first, he wasn’t even sure exactly how to study or what to study. He had never really been properly taught, he says, which made the ability to teach himself something invaluable. Sims would often sit down at the table, take an SAT practice test – which could take up to four hours – grade himself and then analyze what he did wrong and why it happened. It’s good to get help from your teachers, Sims stresses, but you must learn to teach yourself.

“I would be up until 2 in the morning,” Sims says. “But eventually I got a 1,320 on the SATs, which is in the top 92 percent.”

He’s not trying to brag, he’s quick to add – just proud. He’s a big believer in hard work, and it was nice to see everything pay off. Sims says he learned exactly how important hard work was when he started playing the trumpet in third grade.

“Everybody has an instrument that forges them,” Sims says. “Mine was the trumpet. It’s a grueling instrument. If you’re not right for it, it will tell you. There will be moments where you’re bleeding and physically struggling.”

Sims struggled so much with the instrument that band instructors and members often told him to pick a different one – one that was better suited for him. Sims, in typical fashion, said thanks, but no thanks. He wanted to play the instrument that everyone told him he couldn’t. It’s a common theme with Sims – if you tell him something isn’t possible, that’s probably a pretty good indicator he’s going to try it.

It’s easy to see Sims’ success goes beyond hard work, though. He has a drive, a fire deep in his belly, that many people never develop. “Most people don’t have my desire,” he says. “They don’t want to end up in the political field or go to an Ivy League school. But I did. So I knew if I want to do this, I can’t do what everybody else does.”

Looking around and seeing so few of his peers cramming for SATs and staying up until 2 in the morning studying wasn’t negative or alienating for Sims – it was just confirmation that he was on the right track. But even that’s starting to change. His classmates have taken note of his goals and what he did to get there – and now students are approaching Sims and asking how he did it, wondering if they can, too.

“It’s very humbling,” he says. “When I was doing it, I didn’t think it was a big deal. I wasn’t uncovering some big secret; I was just doing what needed to get done. But when people are coming up to me and asking things like that, I felt like I opened the gate for people to be inspired.”

According to Sims, his classmates saw a lot of barriers ahead of them – they’d never score high enough on the SATs, never get into an Ivy League, because no one from their school has in over a decade. It’s a mindset that’s been drilled into his fellow students – intentionally or not – for years and by lack of examples. It’s hard to break out of, and Sims knows that.

But Sims was lucky enough to see people who defied that. He cites his band instructor as someone who taught him a great deal about hard work, which he says can be transferred to anything. He knows people in their 40s and 50s from Camden who went to Harvard Law, people who have become successful despite expectations and despite what people said. Now Sims is just hoping he can do the same thing for others.

“Because I broke through that barrier, now people are asking me how they can get higher SAT scores,” Sims says. “Just because we live in the inner city, it isn’t impossible. They could finally see that. I changed their mindsets.”

Changing mindsets is exactly what Sims hopes to keep doing. He says his own was influenced by the arts, in particular.

“A lot of my life is the arts,” he says. “I believe because I’ve studied the arts, my mind and the way I think are different. I see things from many perspectives. I’m open to a lot of different views.”

On some things though, Sims can be single-minded – like how to achieve success. “Never have a plan B,” he says. “Never even think about a plan B. Figure out what plan A is and work toward it. If you believe in plan A, you put all your work into that.”

In the fall, Sims will leave for Cornell to major in industrial labor relations – and to put all his ideas about success, hard work and confidence to the test. It seems like they might just hold up. The next step after Cornell is Harvard Law. After that?

Sims wants to come back.

“I want to continue to uplift the spirits and the mindset of the city where I’m from,” Sims says. “To me, if I could just do that, it would be greater than anything else. I believe I was put on this earth to live for others. I want to be able to come back with my success and say, ‘This is how you get there.’ That’s all. I’m going to blaze the trail so people can walk behind me and say, ‘We all found a way there together.’”

February 2017
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