Aisha Alston ran a children’s nursery for several years and works as an executive assistant for a real estate investment company and just sent off the eldest of five children to college. She still has found time to take online courses to finish her college degree.
Even without a degree of her own, she recognized that she could still preach the importance of a college education, she said, “but for me, I felt that I wasn’t being as truthful to them about that in terms of the importance (of a degree) if I wasn’t making it important in my own life and in my own career.”
Alston’s eldest, Georgia Tech freshman defensive lineman Cortez Alston, has absorbed the exhortations. When he whittled down his roughly 40 scholarship offers, he came down to Tech and an unlikely co-finalist, Penn, where he had the chance to study in the world-renowned Wharton School.
“I didn’t expect for me ever to be able to have the opportunity to go to a school like that,” Alston said.
But Alston is a Yellow Jacket and a well-prepared one at that. He graduated from Westminster with a GPA well above 3.0 and a transcript that included four advanced-placement classes. He is on a path that his parents put him on when he was a child.
“You just have these feelings of, just every time you look at him, you’re like, I’m just so proud of you,” said his father, Marquis Alston. “You kind of saw it all the way through.”
Even when he was in college, playing football at Fort Valley State, Marquis said he realized he’d made a mistake. He suspected that, had he been more diligent during his time at Mays High, he could have played major-college football.
“And so I took some of my mistakes and said, ‘OK, this is where I messed up and put everything into football,’” he said. “’You’ve got to balance things out and make sure that your academics come first and football is definitely second, or anything else that you want to pursue.’”
Marquis left Fort Valley State after Aisha became pregnant with Cortez. Aisha, who had met Marquis at Mays, finished her first year at a Nebraska college and also left school. They married in August 1998, and Cortez was born the following March.
Marquis Jr. followed soon after, followed by three girls, Trinitee, Destinee and Eternitee1. (Aisha and Marquis Sr. separated 2 1/2 years ago.)
Education has been at the family’s center. Dissatisfied with the educational choices in their home district in Smyrna, the Alstons enrolled Cortez at Westminster going into the sixth grade. With his siblings, they took advantage of a Cobb County School District policy that permits families to enroll children in other schools in the county and sent them to the Harrison High district in Kennesaw. The younger four Alstons have attended there since middle school (Marquis Jr. and Trinitee are at Harrison, Destinee and Eternitee are at Pine Mountain Middle School).
The 21-mile drive (one way) through brutal Cobb traffic, along the East-West Connector and then up north to the other end of the county, can take 35 minutes or more. Sometimes a nanny will make the drive.
“The best parts (of Harrison) are there’s more opportunities, better environment,” Marquis Jr. said. “The bad — it’s far.”
It’s a choice they’re happy to make.
“It can be pretty hectic in the morning, but I’m a coffee drinker,” Aisha said. “Between coffee and some inspirational music in the car and a ballcap, I’m good.”
Football and other extracurricular activities have been the other part of the equation. With the passion Cortez and Marquis Jr. showed for football at an early age, and the athletic ability they demonstrated, Marquis Sr. was determined that they would make better use of their opportunities than he had.
“That’s when the light went on,” said Marquis Sr, a FedEx route manager. “I said, ‘I’m going to make sure that we leverage your athleticism to get your education paid for.’”
When they were boys first starting to play, their father showed them a diagram of a boy progressing to a young man, all the while holding a football. In the last image in the sequence, the young man is holding a diploma.
Both boys were paying attention. Marquis Jr., a senior cornerback at Harrison, may well join Cortez. Tech is among the schools that has shown interest in him, as well as Duke, Pitt and West Virginia.
Cortez thrived both academically and academically at Westminster. As a junior, he helped lead the Wildcats to their first state championship since 1979. He recognized the privilege of having an English teacher who had previously been on the faculty at Stanford. He took service trips to Guatemala and Belize.
“I see the sacrifices they have made to put me there,” he said. “It’s constantly on my mind, so I can’t really take it for granted, especially at that school.”
Alston’s strong academic record and his performance on the field (he was rated the No. 45 weakside defensive end prospect in the country by 247 Sports) put him in position to make a most enviable choice — Penn or Tech. From a football standpoint, it was curious — a power-conference school and an Ivy League institution, albeit one that can claim 21 billionaires among its alumni. Friends of his thought he was considering Penn State.
“I never let it faze me,” he said. “I knew what it was. I knew what it could do for me.”
In Tech, he had a school with the combination that its coaches tout — high-powered academics and elite football.
“I felt like I’m just too competitive to be in that scenario, especially athletically,” he said. “I push myself more than that.”
The attitude undoubtedly delights his parents.
“I want to see them living their life, like, in a big way,” Aisha Alston said. “No matter what that is. We talk about that often. We do. I tell them, ‘You go for it.’”