Cody Gray, ’19, is not a quitter. When he sees value in something, he keeps at it. So it’s not surprising he became the first student in the history of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies to be admitted to the School as a senior.

Gray’s road to the Jepson School was not without challenges. A standout football player at Trinity Episcopal School located just across the James River from University of Richmond, he applied to Richmond but wasn’t accepted. So in August 2015, he matriculated at Hampden-Sydney College, where he played defensive line.

At the suggestion of his grandmother, an alumna of University of Richmond School of Law, Gray reapplied to Richmond during his first semester at Hampden-Sydney.

“When I got accepted,” Gray said, “I called my mom and grandmother and they both started bawling. They were so happy!”

There was only one catch: He was accepted on his academic merits, not as a student-athlete.

“I told my Hampden-Sydney coach I wanted to play football at UR and ultimately pursue a coaching career,” Gray said. “He called his good friend, UR head football coach Rocco, to arrange a meeting for me. I went to the meeting expecting to talk to Coach Rocco about being a student assistant to the football team. Instead, he handed me a jersey.

“At 5’11” and 220 pounds, I was the smallest guy on the defensive line, but I was on the UR football team starting in August 2016.”

His introduction to leadership studies came a little later, in spring semester 2017.

“I took my second Jepson class—Leadership and the Social Sciences with Dr. Hoyt—in fall 2017,” Gray said. “That class convinced me to pursue leadership studies. Despite getting the worst grade I’ve had at Jepson, I learned more in that class than any other.

“I loved Dr. Hoyt’s passionate teaching style. She provided prompts that pushed us to think outside the box. In another class I took with Dr. Hoyt, I rewrote my midterm paper three times before submitting it to her. She inspired me to give my best.”

Another leadership studies class, Justice and Civil Society taught by Richmond chaplain Craig Kocher, inspired Gray to give his best outside the classroom. To fulfill the class’ community-based-learning component, Gray started volunteering as a mentor with the Youth Life Foundation of Richmond (YLFR), a nonprofit that runs after-school and summer school programs for low-income children.

He’s still volunteering there, several semesters after completing his course requirement.

“Showing up is the first step,” Gray said, “The kids don’t have much stability and consistency in their lives, so you just keep going. They’re my kids. You don’t always like ’em, but you love ’em. That’s what my grandma used to say to me.”

The Chaplaincy awarded Gray a 2018 summer fellowship to intern with the YLFR as a math and English instructor for elementary school students.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Gray said. “But when you want to make a difference, you step in. The longer you step in, the greater the difference you make.”

“Cody persevered and learned a lot in the process,” said Youth Life program director Leahna Sullivan. “He's very passionate about the kids and is having a positive influence on their lives.”

Gray’s perseverance ultimately led to his unexpected acceptance to the Jepson School this fall, during his senior year. Due to his status as a transfer student, he hadn’t completed the necessary course prerequisites for admission to the Jepson School by the beginning of his junior year—usually the last opportunity for students to be inducted into the School.

“I kept taking leadership studies classes anyway,” Gray said, “and because I will be here an extra semester for football, I will be able to take all the classes required for a minor. So I was accepted into the Jepson School in November and will graduate in December 2019 with a sociology major and a leadership studies minor.”

Perseverance, it turns out, is not a bad trait for a leader.