Daya Brown had some extra time on her hands in 2020 while she was stuck at home as a high school sophomore during the coronavirus pandemic and taking classes over Zoom.
When it was time to apply to college as a high school senior, she devoted three hours a day over four months to filling out applications, she said. She also spent a lot of time searching for potential scholarships. Brown said she did not have to pay application fees because many colleges and universities waived them amid the pandemic, and her school counselors helped her to utilize admission price waivers.
Brown said she was astonished when her email inbox began to fill up with offers in September.
Of the 70 schools she’d applied to, she was accepted by 54, including Virginia State University, the University of Maryland, Spelman College, Ohio University, Louisiana State University and Loyola University Chicago. She also received more than $1.3 million in scholarship offers from the 54 schools.
“It was a great feeling, because I put in a lot of hard work,” said Brown, now 18 and a senior at Westlake, where she is student body president. “I’m really thankful to be at a stage where I did everything I needed to do to get to the next step in life.”
Brown decided to accept a one-year financial aid scholarship from the top choice on her list, Duke University in Durham, N.C., where she said she plans to major in visual and media studies this fall. She is also a finalist for The Gates Scholarship that will be awarded to 300 outstanding minority high school students this summer. If she is awarded that scholarship, she won’t need to reapply for additional financial aid scholarships at Duke every year, she said.
After she graduates with her high school class on May 17, she said she has another goal before she moves into a dorm at Duke:
She wants to tell other teens how she did it.
Brown said her story is unusual but not singular — other students have received dozens of college acceptance offers — but she hopes she might have some tips to pass along to help others get a pile of acceptance letters from their top university choices.
Her advice for students is to start early, focus on schools with the top programs for their majors and apply for lots of scholarships, even small ones. There are no shortcuts when doing this kind of research, she said, so it’s critical to devote the time and energy to figuring out what’s out there.
But most important, she said, applicants should provide college administrators with a good idea of who they are as young people. For Brown, that was a focus on her poetry, her stage performances and her leadership that led her to create both a production company and a podcast for teens.
“I have a great GPA, but I knew that my SAT scores weren’t going to be the best and I wouldn’t be at the level of many other kids who were applying,” Brown explained. “I knew that I had to shift the narrative and focus on my personal story. That’s what was key for me, and I think it might be helpful to others, too.”
Plans are in the works for her to participate in a free workshop this summer with Fulton County Schools to share tips about her college research and application process, Brown said.
“I want to show that if I can do it, other kids with big dreams can do it, too,” she said. “If they’re willing to put in the time and take advantage of every resource they can find, they can get it done.”
The elder of two children, she said she picked up good study habits and a strong work ethic from her mother, Farrah Brown, a real estate agent, and her dad, Olujimi Brown, a former preacher who is now a ministry consultant.
“I grew up watching my dad as a public speaker, and my mom is a great role model who taught me the importance of balance in life,” she said.
“Teachers at my K through 8 school also set the foundation and the expectation of what a student should be,” Brown added. “They introduced me to the world of poetry and debate and helped to shape me as a person.”
During her freshman year of high school, she said she initially dreamed about becoming a lawyer. Then a school counselor introduced Brown to Westlake Out Loud, a poetry group where students performed their poems in front of an audience.
“I was the youngest person on the stage, and from the moment I first stepped out there, I realized that I had a voice to empower people,” she said. “The words no longer belonged to me — they were meant to heal the world.”
She decided instead to focus on her creative side.
In September 2021, Brown started her own Atlanta-based production company, Elom & Co. (Elom is her middle name), to promote poetry, music, art and film created by teens and young adults. She also co-founded a podcast, “The Scholar Social,” to provide students of color a place to discuss topics such as race, religion and parental relationships.
Brown said she began contributing poetry and opinion pieces to VOX ATL, an Atlanta nonprofit that posts stories and videos created by teens.
When it came time to send in those 70 college applications last year, Brown said she was hopeful that admissions committees would remember her application among the thousands of others.
“I applied at so many [colleges] because realistically, these schools have a hard acceptance rate,” she said. “People from all over the world send in applications, so you want to do whatever you can to make yours stand out.”
Her high school principal, Jarvis Adams, said he is grateful for the example Brown has set for other students at Westlake.
“Daya is driven, she knows how to set a schedule, and she’s passionate about everything she does,” Adams said. “Our entire school community is proud of her. She’ll be a phenomenal college student.”
Brown’s mother said she’s happy and relieved that the extra hours she spent with Daya at the kitchen table helping with homework assignments and offering time management tips have paid off.
"I encourage her and her brother to stay grounded in everything they do,” Farrah Brown said.
Daya Brown said she decided to attend Duke University this fall because she felt a sense of home when she toured the campus last year.
“It just immediately felt right," she said. "I was welcomed by other Black students who had dreams that were as vivid as my dreams.”
“When I came home, I knew it would be my top choice,” she said. “The entire time I was there, I didn’t have to ask myself, ‘Where do I fit in?’”
Her parents and her 11-year-old brother gathered around her in December when she received an email notification about Duke’s decision, Brown said.
“I was so nervous and excited that my family had to read it to me,” she said. “Confetti popped up in the email, and we all went crazy when we realized I was in. I’ll hold on to the feeling of that moment forever.”