AJ may be from a small town, but has some big dreams.
Archie “AJ” Wilson Jr. is an Atlanta native who’s a recent graduate of Wesleyan University with a degree in government and concentration in American politics. He’s a nonprofit leader of Dream Chasers, a public figure, and dreamer.
It began around my senior year in high school. I began to be known by just about everyone in the place where I grew up. As a result of a combination of my community service, academic performance, my athletic performances, and honestly just going to a bunch of different schools in the area, you either knew me directly or knew someone who knew me growing up.
As I continue to do an experience more “high-profile things”, my influence back at home and my platform via social media and other avenues simply grew. Whether I liked it or not, people listen to what I had to say. The platform that has been created has only been growing and I find myself now 21 years old with the ability to reach thousands of people simply by sending a tweet.
So you lead a nonprofit. When did this idea emerge?
The idea came from a series of different motivations. The first was my experiences-spending a lot of time in afterschool programming as a child due to having two working parents who had long hours and I honestly hated it.
"I was frustrated with how students were forced to spend their afterschool time."
My friends and I called “After School Prison” or ASP for short. I was frustrated with how students were forced to spend their afterschool time and as I got older I realized that if it wasn’t for sports, I would have spent my afterschool time in middle school and high school doing things I probably shouldn’t be doing. And that became the reality for some of my friends.
My second inspiration was this idea or frustration that there is very limited space in the K-12 educational system for students to explore their academic dreams and goals. Everything is predestined for you. But I became frustrated as a student because I wanted space to explore what I wanted to explore academically. There were no spaces where I saw students fully able to dictate their dreams academically.
Finally, as I got older I read about opportunity gaps and realized that opportunity gaps not only keep students from pursuing their academic dreams but keep students from filling the true trajectory of what their lives could be. So, I ended up interning at a nonprofit organization called Gideon’s Promise during the summer of my sophomore year in high school.
I learned about what a nonprofit does and how they go about solving problems and quickly realized these types of organization might be the answer to relieving the frustrations I had felt as a younger student. In the summer of 2012, Dream Chasers was born aiming to close the opportunity gaps for all students through student-led educational initiatives and programming.
Talk about the impact so far. Where do you want Dream Chasers to go?
We have been operating for almost 6 years and have impacted the lives of over 5700 students and I’ve helped our students earn over $1.4 million worth of scholarships. We operate using the chapter -based model and we currently have eight chapters on college campuses in five different states.
I see Dream Chasers growing to be not only a national organization with chapters all over the country but a catalyst and an example of the power of student-led movements. My dream for Dream Chasers one day is to turn on the news and see powerful student-led movements like what’s happening in Parkland Florida and be able to say, “Wow, that’s a Dream Chasers’ student.
You’ve accomplished so much in your life. You’re graduated college a year early and recently won the Clinton Foundation’s Global Initiative. What exactly do you want to do in life?
I want to do a lot in life. I want to be a good citizen of planet earth, I want to be a good son, I want to be a good brother, eventually a great husband and a great father. I want to be an advocate for communities that are forgotten or historically have been underdogs or outsiders.
I see myself as a serial entrepreneur, I plan on going to law school in the near future and eventually living a life of service. I see myself running for public office specifically in Georgia because I love my home community and only if my community wants and needs it, I see myself running for mayor, or House of Representatives, or state Senate, or governor. All in all, I want to live a life of purpose for service, love, joy, and positivity.
I love the fact you self-proclaimed yourself a “small town kid with big-time dreams.” Why are dreams necessary-especially for young people who are living in the shadows eager to accomplish theirs?
Dreams are simply the blueprint for future actions. I always tell people that dreams are roadmaps waiting to be used. Young people need to have dreams because gone are the days when you need to “wait your turn”. Your turn is right now.
There are so many ways and avenues that exist today that allow young people to realize their dreams right now. So, I don’t necessarily believe that students are living in the shadows because they have to be. That might’ve been the case 50 years ago, but students are now only living in the shadows for two reasons I believe.
"Dreams are necessary because everything that you see in the world started as a dream."
Those students might not have the resources or tools to realize those dreams, and this is part of the reason why Dream Chasers was created. Students might also not realize these dreams is because of fear. But young people can change the world while they’re still young.
It is crucial that young people have dreams because one day these young people will just be people and one day these people will become old people and the leaders of tomorrow. Nobody wants the leader with no vision or blueprint or a roadmap.
When did you start developing your network? How have you maintained those connections?
When I was in the sixth grade. Every summer I’ve had it internship of some sort and I’ve been able to rub shoulders with many different people. I’ve been able to maintain these connections by substituting the word connection with a relationship. I think the term connection is very transactional. I don’t like using the term connection because it implies that you are in a relationship with this person because of what they can do for you, so I use the word relationship.
The word relationship humanizes the interactions that happen between you and the person that you met. When you use the word relationship you treat that relationship that you were building with the person you met no differently than you treat the relationship you have with your best friend.
I try my best to send email updates with every new life event that happens, I try to remember birthdays, sometimes I email and call simply to see how they are doing. I try to master the little details. That is how I separate myself from everyone else, I master the things that most people forget to do.
Any advice for someone who wants to follow a similar path as yours?
"Hungry. Humble. Hustle."
There are three words that describe me. I think that I have been blessed with the tremendous amount of success due to my level of desire for success.
I try to remain hungry. I try never to become drunk or full from success. While I’ll be the first to tell you that have some swagger is not a bad thing, I fully understand that there is always somebody more talented, somebody with more experience, somebody who is doing it bigger, somebody that you can learn from. Always remain humble. Nobody likes a person who is not teachable or team player.
And finally, hustle. Some people say grind but I like the hustle and believe my hustle makes up for where my talents come short. I truly believe hustle will always be talent when talent doesn’t work hard. I have the mindset that I’m a relatively talented person and that talent takes me to a good level. But I believe that when I blend my talent with an unending, unrelenting level of hustle, I’ve become nearly unbeatable.
How can folks get involved in your work?