“I remember the first time I wanted to act: I was about four years old, my mom was watching the film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge starring Halle Berry,” recalled Alyssa Nettles, Ánimo Watts College Preparatory Academy alumnus. “Even at a young age I knew I wanted to be like Halle, Dorothy, and the many other African American women who graced the stage–I knew I needed to act.” Her mom inadvertently introduced her to acting, but also instilled in her a strong value for higher education. This seeded her dreams of joining the celebrated theatre program at Alabama State University (ASU), one of 101 Historically Black College and Universities (HBCU) across the country.
Finding Her Place at an HBCU
“I knew I wanted to go to a school where the community was made up of a wide spectrum of African American students,” said Nettles. At Ánimo Watts, her desire to attend an HBCU was solidified through her U.S. history course. “When we studied black history, it hit me hard and opened my eyes to the many struggles my people went through to attain things many often take for granted, such as an education,” reflected Nettles. HBCUs are steeped in the work of equality and freedom. When colleges denied African American citizens access to higher education, HBCUs offered the best, if not the only, opportunity to pursue postsecondary education and realize social mobility.
“At times I wanted to cry because I’d be somewhere on campus and think, ‘I’m walking on the same streets my forefathers marched through.’”
ASU’s renowned theatre program and rich history fascinated her–from Jo Ann Robinson, a professor who used the university’s mimeograph to print flyers for the Montgomery bus boycott, to the 35 ASU students that staged a sit-in which prompted an 800-person rally addressed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I knew I wanted to go to an HBCU whose campus held a moment in history, and Montgomery being the birthplace of the civil rights movement made ASU an obvious choice,” said Nettles. “At times I wanted to cry because I’d be somewhere on campus and think, ‘I’m walking on the same streets my forefathers marched through.’”
Road to College
When she entered high school, her mother was in college pursuing her bachelor’s degree, which inspired Nettles and further fueled her desire to pursue a postsecondary education. Though Nettles found success at ASU, her road to college proved to be onerous. “I come from a low-income family and at times it was hard getting the basic necessities like school supplies and clothes, even though my mom tried her best to provide for my brother and me,” said Nettles.
“Unfortunately, my mom’s health declined and she had to leave school and eventually her job, so I stepped up to take care of her and my brother who has autism,” said Nettles. These events took a toll on Nettles and her family: “It became really difficult towards the end of high school. I wasn’t in a good place and my grades started to suffer.” Her change in demeanor quickly became apparent to staff at Ánimo Watts, especially her counselor Tameika Hildreth.
“Alyssa was very vocal, involved in cheer, and full of life, but when her mom got sick, she became more closed in and withdrawn,” recalled Hildreth. “Seeing this, I deepened my relationship with her mom, and started checking in on Alyssa more often, because I wanted to ensure that school was a place where she felt supported by people who understood her situation.” For Nettles, this support helped her not feel lost during such a turbulent time in her life.
Looking back, Nettles recalls her experience at Ánimo Watts, specifically in Luis Alvarez’s economics class, as a bright spot during this time in her life. “Everyday he greeted us at the door, shook our hands, and always created a positive class environment,” recalled Nettles. “Being in his classroom always made me feel very comfortable and safe, regardless of what was going on outside of class.”
Though the struggles in her life remained, Nettles knew she couldn’t let them deter her from achieving her dreams. “A fire was lit under my feet because I knew I was capable of success,” said Nettles. “I knew I needed to graduate or I wouldn’t be going to college and I’d be unable to achieve my dreams.”
Reflecting on Her Experiences
Nettles often reflects on her time in high school with gratitude, particularly for her counselor and teachers’ positive influence in her development as a student and young woman. “In high school I had friends at different schools, and I’d have to teach them some of the things I was learning because they didn’t get the same one-on-one help or resources and opportunities that I had,” said Nettles.
“Although this first semester was challenging I was able to overcome all of the obstacles and finish the semester with a 3.5 GPA, and I’m so proud of that.” – Alyssa Nettles
Now that she’s in college, the way she views the world and her dreams of acting have evolved. “I’ve grown to love how drama allows you to bring all of you to life without holding back a thing,” reflected Nettles.
Studying theater has also exposed her to many career opportunities in scenic design, choreography, screenwriting, and creative directing. “Although this first semester was challenging I was able to overcome all of the obstacles and finish the semester with a 3.5 GPA, and I’m so proud of that.”
“When you really get to know Alyssa, you quickly realize that she is a young woman who can achieve anything she sets her mind to, a woman who is strong and fierce,” said Alvarez. It is this personal strength, coupled with the support network she cultivated throughout high school, that has given her the vision to persist where many might have given up.