High School graduation is right around the corner. Seniors are busy with end of year exams, getting a graduation gown, and getting ready for what comes next.
Nikea Randolph remembers the moment when she decided music was going to be her life.
Nikea Randolph: "I guess I was around 8 years old. And I listened to a song Called Beethoven “Fur Elise.” And I really fell in love with music. I was amazed at the fact that so much self-expression and compassion can be expressed without words. From that point on, music became my everything. Music is my life."
Nikea is not your average student, and she doesn’t attend your average school. She’s a senior at Wayne Early Middle College High School. When she graduates in May she’ll get two degrees – a high school diploma, and an associate’s degree.
But her dreams have always been bigger than that. Since elementary school, she’s set her sights on Juilliard – the world-renowned arts school in New York City.
So she practiced. A lot. She’d get up before school and practice for two hours. Then four more when she got home. She plays the piano, guitar, clarinet, drums, even the autoharp - whatever she can get her hands on. And she writes her own music, too.
Randolph: "Well, my mom and my dad, they played like random instruments, so my dad was in the band and he played like the cymbals or something and my mom played the accordion, which is totally random, but…"
Nikea’s father is a press operator at Georgia Pacific - her mother works at a local high school. Nikea and her sister are the first generation in her family to go to college.
Juilliard is a long shot, even for those with everything going for them. Nikea doesn’t have a decade and a half of private lessons. Wayne Community College, where she takes her high school and college courses, cut music classes her freshman year.
And when it came time to apply to Juilliard, Nikea didn’t have a classical guitar – the kind she needed to play on her audition tape.
That didn’t sit well with Scott Hendrickson, a fellow senior.
Scott Hendrickson: "I like to play music, I like to listen to music but I noticed the guitar she was playing, it was not built for that kind of music. And I realized that someone with that kind of musical potential deserves to have an instrument that can really take them that far."
So, Scott sprang into action. His idea was to send out a mass text message to his fellow seniors and ask for donations. The money came in quickly – ten dollars here, two dollars there. He remembers how much it cost to the penny, but he doesn’t want Nikea to know. When he had enough, he drove to Raleigh and bought it. The Guitar Center even threw in the case for free.
Hendrickson: "I had the idea, I took the idea, and literally in less than 24 hours, we had the guitar."
A few days later, he stood on a stage at the school’s talent show and surprised Nikea with the guitar – a moment captured in a jumpy youtube video.
Hendrickson (on video): "We wanted to show you that we loved you and cared about you so much, we want to see you go and do everything you want to do… so we got you this cordoba, it’s a hand-crafted guitar in Oregon…"
In the video, Nikea is overcome. Several months later, she still is.
Randolph: "My school family has always told me that I can do it. The guitar makes me realize – when they got me that guitar – that they actually believed in my dreams, they want to help me accomplish my dreams."
If this was a fairy tale, Nikea would have made her audition tape for Juilliard, been accepted, and gone on to a life of red carpets and grammy awards. But it’s not - instead of a fat acceptance letter, Nikea got the thin one. Juilliard said no.
Nikea was crushed, for about two weeks. And then, like a musician, she turned her pain into art.
Randolph: "People say let it out, mom says let it out, you can cry. I say mom, I don’t want to cry. I don’t want to cry. I just want my music. There’s some times I just want my music and that was one of them."
Nikea will study music at Columbia College in South Carolina this fall, on a scholarship. She wants to score movies someday. Scott Hendrickson is going into the military – he wants to be an Army Ranger.
But whatever life holds for them, they’ll be linked forever by a moment, and a gift, they both say they’ll treasure forever.