Five years ago, Nylee Alston tied the laces on her tennis shoes, pulled her curly hair back in a ponytail, gripped her racket and walked between the white lines of the tennis courts at TB McPherson Recreation Center for the first time.
Now 17, Alston has become a presence on the court and an inspiration to her peers.
Alston, a senior at Eastside High School, was one of 10 students to win the national United States Tennis Association Foundation’s National Junior Tennis and Learning essay scholarship. What became Alston’s moment in the spotlight among 1,000 other applicants started as a challenge from her coaches at Aces in Motion.
Aces in Motion is a local youth group that combines tennis, tutoring and counseling with a focus on underserved communities. The program is an affiliate of the NJTL network, which supports over 250 youth tennis organizations and is a division of the United States Tennis Association.
Aces in Motion Youth and Family Director Nasseeka Denis said the program aims to help students form a family where they feel comfortable to be their true selves.
“It’s a place to grow,” she said. “It’s a place to come and be around people who support you and be around people who want better for themselves and their community, and it’s a chance for everyone who’s involved with the program to really go to the next level.”
The staff encourages its students to apply for the $5,000 scholarship every year, yet a student has never won the award, she said.
In September, Alston became the first.
She recalled driving back from work when she received the news and sitting in shock. While Alston knew she put in her best effort to the essay, she did not expect to win.
Despite her surprise, the theme of the essay — “What does success mean to you?” — was not a foreign thought to Alston. The teen has dreams of going to college and becoming a pediatrician, but her idea of success is not measured by the bills in one’s bank account.
“It’s more than just money and fame — success is education,” she said. “I don’t know where you’d be without education. It’s something I’ve thought about before; I just want to be something in life.”
Alston said she is thankful for Aces in Motion teaching her the importance of education and focusing on her school work. In her essay, she explained that the focus Aces in Motion helped her to find is directly correlated to her dedication to setting goals.
Alston also drew a connection between her goals on the court and her journey to success in life, calling the overlap between the two the “tennis mindset.”
When Alston sends the tennis ball whizzing over the top of the net, winning is not always the only thing on her mind.
“The tennis mindset is always helping people, having patience and never giving up on yourself,” she said.
The scholarship winner also referenced her dream to set an example for the younger students in the program. Aces in Motion is open to both middle and high school students, so Alston has an opportunity to act as an inspiration as one of the older players.
In her essay, Alston wrote, “I want to be the leader where people look at me as their role model, so younger kids can follow me, and I can show them the right way to go in life.”
In Alston’s view of success, the most important thing one can be is someone who helps those around them.
Aces in Motion coaches, such as Denis, believe Alston has used her determined spirit and kind heart to find success as a leader for her peers.
“The essay has been around for a while, and every year we have our participants write it,” Denis said. “But I think seeing one of their peers accomplish at the national level, it lets them know that if Nylee can do it, I can do it too, and it’s possible.”