Tiny Donalsonville, Ga., is about as far as you can go in southwest Georgia without crossing over into Alabama or Florida. It’s also about as far as you can get from Athens and the University of Georgia and still be in the state.
That Johnelle Simpson II covered that distance at all was no small feat. These days, fewer and fewer kids from rural Georgia make it to the state’s most prestigious research universities.
That he made it to the presidency of the UGA Student Government, though, has a pretty simple explanation: his involvement in Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) at Seminole County High School.
As a child growing up in the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Donalsonville, Johnelle never minded getting up in Sunday School and making speeches. He’d even memorize long passages from speeches by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others.
As much as Johnelle enjoyed that childhood speaking experience, he never thought much about what it could mean for him and his future. But then Kim Orrick, a teacher and student counselor at Seminole County Middle School and High School, took him under her wing and steered him in two directions. One direction was into taking computing and accounting classes that were part of the school’s Career, Technical & Agricultural Education (CTAE) program. The other was into the school’s Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) chapter.
“[FBLA competition] just gives you a different level of confidence, finding out that you can compete with kids from all over the country,” he says. “It made me believe there was nothing I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it.” — Johnelle Simpson II
Through FBLA, Johnelle soon found himself in regional, state and national speaking competitions. His freshman year, he was sidelined by an abscessed tooth, but the next year he came back and won first place in the FBLA’s National Leadership Conference for Public Speaking in Nashville. From there he went to competitions in Orlando and San Antonio, and was selected as a national Top 15 Finalist Future Business Leader his senior year in high school.
Now a senior at UGA, Johnelle has been active on campus since arriving four years ago and this year was elected student government president and 2015 Homecoming King.
The FBLA national competitions gave him a broader perspective on the world and the people in it. “It just gives you a different level of confidence, finding out that you can compete with kids from all over the country,” he says. “It made me believe there was nothing I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it.”
All of those trips took him a long way – both literally and figuratively – from Donalsonville. “It really influenced the way I saw things and my acceptance of other people.”