Around the country, and maybe even around the world, junior Destiny James became known as “the girl who met Drake” in a matter of minutes on Feb. 5. However, the true story behind what led to James’ once-in-a-lifetime experience began way before then – back when Drake was still Aubrey Graham.
James describes her home, Denmark, in South Carolina’s “low country,” as an area with a lot of small towns, a region “that is often looked down upon.” She was brought up in a single-parent household, was educated in the public school system and had limited resources. James had odds stacked against her from the start, she said.
Students at her high school were stereotyped as kids who weren’t going to really “go anywhere,” or if they did, they’d eventually “just give up” on their dreams. James turned that negativity into motivation to break through the barriers, even from a young age.
“I’ve always had this go-above-and-beyond attitude since elementary school,” said James, a public health major. “I started reading at 3. I would even fight with my older sister when she was 5 or 6 because she wouldn’t let me read her Chicken Noodle Soup books.”
When it came time to apply for college, she applied to two schools: the University of Miami and Harvard University. She eventually interviewed with Harvard, but immediately after she received her acceptance letter from the University of Miami, what she called “her dream school,” she knew it was all about the U.
Even pursuing her dream was a bold move. James said students from her high school didn’t believe they’d be able to attend their dream schools, so they didn’t apply.
But James did.
“At the end, the worst thing they can say is no … But I applied and I got accepted,” she said. “So I was like, ‘Wow, I proved so many people wrong.’ But then again, there were also so many people that did believe me, so I proved so many people right. That’s what motivated me.”
Though getting accepted to UM was a dream come true, what would follow was more than two years of financial and emotional woes. James was able to attend the university thanks to financial aid. The cost of the school was not fully covered though, leaving James and her mother to find a way to ensure her dream wouldn’t die.
James said she spent the majority of her freshman year stressed about being able to afford college. At one point, she even considered transferring schools because she couldn’t afford to attend UM. She picked up a job in the Department of Teaching and Learning during the first week of her freshman year to ease the pressure, but her mother still had to come up with more than $400 a month. The financial obligations affected James’ daily life.
Because of the additional financial stressor, she said she found herself focusing more on being able to afford school than on actually making the most out of her academic experience. She said her grades suffered greatly because of it.
“When I had a certain bill coming up, I would literally obsess over when the pay period starts and ends,” James said. “I would try to squeeze in as many hours and go to my WorkDay and write down all my hours and see how big my check was going to be.”
Then, during her freshman year, James’ father was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. The cancer would eventually spread to his liver and spine. He died two weeks after her freshman year ended.
James questioned whether she could keep attending UM. She said she tried getting more help through the financial aid office, hoping that she’d be given more money when her account was adjusted to exclude her father’s income.
Still, she owed hundreds of dollars a month, she said.
So she took up another job as a security assistant for Housing and Residential Life.
As James started looking ahead, she knew that she needed extra financial assistance in order to continue pursuing her education. She applied for multiple scholarships and interviewed with members of the Black Alumni Society for a scholarship. She shared her story with them and was awarded $4,500. That scholarship, along with need-based aid and loans, allowed her to attend UM for her third year.
Then, superstar rapper Drake came into the picture.
James said she received a phone call from Darlene Rebello-Rao, assistant vice president of university advancement on Feb. 3. Rebello-Rao told James she wanted to feature her in a video to motivate alumni to donate.
On the afternoon of Feb. 4, Rebello-Rao met up with James and took her to the stairs of the Frost Music School. There, James was told to sit under one of the arches of the staircase and tell her story in front of a camera.
Word started to spread about Drake’s rumored music video shoot on campus. James had heard it and was a little upset that she would be missing his appearance. Little did she know the Grammy-award winner came to the school for her.
Drake walked down the steps of the Frost School of Music and gave James a $50,000 check.
Senior Antonio Mercurius met James during her freshman year, when she joined a poetry club he was in. Mercurius said he was shocked because he didn’t know what was going on but he felt like she was the one who deserved the scholarship.
“Destiny is very passionate, very kind-hearted,” said Mercurius, a double major in health science and Africana studies. “She always puts her friends and family first.”
James said Drake made their encounter one of a kind.
“He said, ‘I’ve read a lot about you,'” James said. “‘I’ve heard your story and all the things you’ve been through and all the hard work you’ve been putting in, so I want to give you $50,000 to pay for your tuition.'”
James said she thanked Drake over and over again and even went upstairs to the third floor of the Shalala Student Center to get a firsthand look at his shoot for his music video for “God’s Plan.” After his visit to campus, Drake reached out to James by direct messaging her Instagram and reiterating his support for her.
Mercurius called James someone who “lifts as she climbs.”
“She’s never trying to purposefully leave someone behind,” he said. “She’s always making sure she’s including people and is really a great team player.”
Mercurius said James’ encounter with fame hasn’t changed her one bit.
“She’s still the same Destiny that we all know and love,” he said.
Now, with money to pay her tuition senior year, James is focusing on enjoying her last two semesters.
James plans to get her master’s degree in public health with a specialization in disease prevention, and then move back to South Carolina to educate those who live in the cities and towns of the low country.
For James, no matter how hard the journey from the bottom has been, it’s been worth it, and she encourages others to keep going, too.
“This was 2 1/2 years of stress, depression, long nights, tiresome days, and it paid off,” she said. “You can’t just expect your breakthrough to be something great if you didn’t have a journey.”