LAKE BUENA VISTA
The courage within Armwood High senior Neijia Riley began to bubble as she listened to Rushion McDonald speak during the recent Disney Dreamers Academy with Steve Harvey and Essence magazine.
McDonald serves as comedian Steve Harvey's manager and works as executive producer for Harvey's talk show and syndicated radio show. He's also the executive producer for Think Like a Man Too, a sequel to the 2012 movie based on Harvey's bestselling book Think Like a Man, But Act Like a Lady.
On this day, however, McDonald took time to address 100 high school students, chosen from 10,000 applicants, to attend the academy at the Walt Disney World Resort. He summed up various roles with a succinct sentence: "I hire people for a living."
Neijia didn't need to hear anything else. She longs to work as an event planner and frets about getting a job after college.
So as McDonald bounced from table to table to address the kids, Neijia didn't wait for him to reach her table. She boldly stepped up to McDonald and initiated a conversation. She shared her goals, and when it came time to exchange business cards — each "dreamer" received a box of business cards — she wrote event planner on her card.
"I told him, 'I want you to know that I'm that event planner you met,' " Neijia said.
When McDonald stood before the group again at the final event of the three-day academy, he announced he had chosen two students to work as interns at Harvey's 2014 Neighborhood Awards Events in Atlanta this August. Neijia became visibly emotional as she stood on stage to receive the recognition.
Now in its seventh year, the academy strives to inspire and fuel the dreams of select teens by engaging them with hands-on workshops and career planning exercises. It also offers personal interaction with motivational speakers and celebrities such as E! News host and anchor Terrence J, gospel singer Yolanda Adams, basketball great Magic Johnson and, of course, Harvey.
In short, it's life-changing.
Many of the celebrities read essays to help with the vetting process that netted three Tampa Bay students: Neijia, Carrollwood Day School senior Jessica Wilson and Gibbs High freshman Tra'Vaughn Harrington.
Tra'Vaughn credited the academy for giving him more confidence.
"I thought we were going into a room with Steve Harvey, eat some food, ride some rides and leave," Tra'Vaughn said. "It was much deeper than that, a lot deeper than that."
Jessica used words like amazing and inspiring to characterize her experience. She soaked up every experience and every speech like a sponge, writing down impressionable statements and sharing them with her mother, her 16-year-old sister and all her friends on Twitter.
"Life-changing? That doesn't explain it enough," Jessica said. "It's been more than life-changing. It's been extraordinary."