Marquan Jones of Maywood thinks his future looks pretty bright, and he’s understandably excited about it.

Jones, a senior at Proviso Mathematics and Science Academy (PMSA) in Forest Park, said he learned he was accepted at Cornell University, a private, Ivy-League school in Ithaca, New York, just a few days before Christmas.

“It was really the ultimate Christmas gift,” Jones recalled recently. “I know the course work is going to be challenging, but I’m excited by it.”

Jones, who participates in debate club and theater club among others at PMSA, is also a three-sport athlete at Proviso East High School where he played basketball, track & field, and football.

Jones said he learned of his acceptance in December because he was an early-decision applicant. He thought he had a good chance, he said, but it was still “a reach” to think he would be accepted.

“Cornell was my reach school,” Jones said. “It has a 14 percent acceptance rate, or something like that.”

Jones said before learned he was accepted, he figured he might attend the University of Illinois. In addition to applying for Cornell, he also applied to 15 other schools, several of which were interested in him continuing as a student athlete in their sports programs.

Cornell University offers no athletic or merit scholarships, but Jones said he’ll still be interested in participating in sports clubs in some way at the university once he feels comfortable with the course load, plus any other clubs he might be interested in joining.

Jones spent his early years living on Chicago’s West Side before his family moved to Maywood when he was in third grade. His experience growing up in Maywood, he said, has greatly influenced his educational interests and his desire to succeed.

A poet whose favorite writer is Langston Hughes, Jones describes himself as competitive and driven in everything he does. Whether it’s athletics or academics, he said he approaches everything the same way: aiming to be the best.

His interest in both classroom and sports excellence influenced what he believes will be his course of study at Cornell — food science and nutrition.

“In Maywood, we don’t even have a grocery store, just an abundance of fast food and liquor stores,” Jones said. “There’s a lack of knowledge about healthy eating. I think it’s easier to get a bag of potato chips for 50 cents.”

His food science passion isn’t new. Between his freshman and sophomore years, he participated in a one-week food science research program at the University of Illinois. He enjoyed the program so much he returned for a month-long program between his junior and senior years. Through those programs, he learned more about how food is made and developed with consumer tastes in mind. He even conducted a survey of over 150 students about their granola bar preferences and found that texture was more important than flavor. He’s interested in learning more about food production from start to finish.

“Being a city boy, I always thought of agriculture as just farming, but it’s more than that,” Jones said. 

He’s not about to become a farmer — he’s more interested in the research side of things — but he would like to take his knowledge and use it to help communities like his own.

“I want to find a way to help people, to find ways to do better sustainably, that kind of thing,” he said. “When I was little and learned about world hunger, I wanted to do something to … save the world.”

He’s already started down that path. As a student at PMSA, he spoke with students at Maywood’s Irving Middle School about nutrition and mental health issues. But more importantly, he said, is coming back to the community again after Cornell. Jones said he feels returning is especially important.

“Coming from Maywood is hard,” Jones said. “If people only move out and don’t come back, then what does that do? That’s not OK to me. I want to come back and be a positive influence.”

He feels it’s unfortunate that people sometimes judge a person who comes from Maywood, or who act surprised that he lives there after they talk to him. He described the surprise people felt when his debate team did well after competing against more affluent school districts.

“They were surprised we were from Proviso,” Jones said. “It’s just overshadowed by the negative in the neighborhood.”

Jones said he credits his parents first for his academic enthusiasm. He said they taught him how to the think, not what to think. That ethos, he said, continued at PMSA. He felt lucky to be able to attend the school. Being around other high performing students pushed him to try harder, he said.

Like most students going on to higher education in the fall, he said his biggest concern is about taking out student loans. He worries that he will graduate in debt and be unable to find a good job. At the moment, he’s looking into every opportunity for scholarships that he can get his hands on, he said.

In March, Jones will head to Washington D.C. with other students as part of a panel to discuss ways to build up and improve their communities, he said. He was offered the opportunity to participate after he won an essay contest through the Hillside Human Relations Commission’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest in January.

Now 18 and able to cast a vote in this year’s election, Jones said he was excited about the trip to the nation’s capital. He has also considered going to law school after graduating in order to work for government agencies on food safety — or even run for president one day. Why not?

“But I’ll start smaller,” Jones quipped. “I need to work myself up. Maybe I’ll become the mayor of Maywood first.”