When Jénine Shepherd ’20 heard her name called as a winner of the Jamaican Prime Minister’s Youth Award for Excellence, she could hardly believe it. “I was frozen in my chair, and the camera guy had just panned to me on TV,” she says. The shock wore off, and she took her place on stage with Olympic medalists, Rhodes Scholars, Miss Jamaica Universe and other recipients of her country’s highest honor for young adults.
Shepherd accepted the award from Prime Minister Andrew Holness in the capital city of Kingston in November. She was one of 57 winners for 2018, and one of 20 in the newly established Nation Builder category, in recognition of a program she founded at age 17 to help students even younger.
In 2015, Shepherd worked with friends to launch Youths For Excellence Limited, a nonprofit dedicated to leveling the playing field for disadvantaged kids as they prepare to take their secondary-school entrance exams. Her own exam score had garnered her a government scholarship to one of Kingston’s best high schools, but the competitive system struck her as unfair. “You’re talking about some kids who are in the fifth grade and don’t even know how to count, going up against kids with prep school education,” she says. “They go to schools without even chairs or running water.”
Her long-term plan for her nonprofit is to open up a school that gives kids “all the amenities that they could ever dream of.”
So Shepherd called and lobbied for support from Jamaica’s largest transit company and bookstore chain, as well as food conglomerates and a communications firm. She reached out to school principals and her own former elementary teachers, and set up remedial programs to take place in the schools during summer and winter breaks. Today, Youths For Excellence regularly serves 250 children, she says, providing skills assessment, tutoring, meals and even medical attention. Some students “didn’t even know that they needed glasses until we brought in people to test their eyesight.”
At Amherst, Shepherd has served as an RC and a leader in the student government and the African & Caribbean Students’ Union. A neuroscience major with interest in becoming a neurosurgeon, she established the Amherst chapter of Synapse, which supports those with traumatic brain injuries. Her other major is economics, and she sees in health care the same kinds of inequities and needs for policy change as in education.
Richard Aronson ’69, Shepherd’s pre-health adviser, is among those who recommended her for the youth award. “She’s deeply motivated to pursue her passions, to give back to her community and to take advantage of the opportunities provided by her Amherst education,” he says. “She’s a genuine, dedicated and open-minded person who truly wants to make the world better.”
Shepherd juggles her college activities in between planning fundraisers for Youths For Excellence and working to expand the nonprofit into the United States and the Netherlands. “Don’t even ask me about my international phone bill!” she says. A friend from high school, Jordan Wilson, is her “man on the ground” in Jamaica, but even from 1,700 miles away, she leads the organization she founded: “You make a commitment to these kids, you stick with it.”