When Aaliyah Allen and Roy Antoine walked across the stage during graduation exercises at their Memphis high school Saturday, they capped off four sometimes difficult years, spent largely together.

From being leaders in school band — Allen as a drum major, and Roy on the bass drums — to struggling to fit in at KIPP Memphis Collegiate High School to being the first of their families to go to college right out of high school, the two of them said they couldn’t have made it this far without each other.

KIPP Memphis Collegiate High School senior Roy Antoine announces that he will be attending college at Washington University in St. Louis during the school’s Decision Day 2019 at The Cannon Center.
PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal

But even with their diplomas in hand, their journey together is far from over: Roy, KIPP’s valedictorian, and Aaliyah, the senior class president, are both headed to Washington University in St. Louis on scholarships that will cover the full cost of tuition and allow them to study abroad. Roy wants to study mechanical engineering, and Aaliyah plans to enter the school’s Philosophy, Neuroscience, Psychology program.

“It’s hilarious to me that we’re going to the same place,” said Aaliyah in an interview a week before graduation. “We didn’t plan this.”

She added: “I think I’m stuck with him for the rest of my life.”

Roy didn’t get into his first choice of Cornell University and said with a wink that he had to “settle” for Washington University. (Washington University is highly competitive college that accepts just 14 percent of applicants.)

“You don’t know how lucky you are,” Aaliyah said, in turn with an eye roll.

“I’d always said I wanted to go to college but it’s not something everyone always thought I could really do,” Aaliyah said, noting she was overwhelmed at first by the daunting task of balancing her studies, band, and the college application process.

But her school counselors pushed her, she said, and it helped that Roy was also college-bound.

Roy’s family immigrated to Memphis from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago when he was 5 years old, and throughout much of his schooling, he struggled to form deep connections with other students — until, that is, he met Aaliyah in a freshman honors algebra course and the two became close friends.

Like all of their classmates, Aaliyah and Roy were a part of the KIPP Through College program, which helps students with college visits and scholarship applications and provides direction on what colleges best fit them. In their class of 66 students, 61% are headed to four-year colleges.

The Houston-based KIPP charter network, which runs seven schools in Memphis, markets itself as a place that will help get its students to and through college.

Nationally, about 20 percent of college students come from low-income families, according to the Pew Research Center. Many of those who attend KIPP High School, including Aaliyah and Roy, come from low-income families.

Roy and Aaliyah said they know finishing college won’t be easy, just like navigating the application process was new and hard. But they have some sense of what’s ahead since both students spent part of the summer between junior and senior years on college campuses.

Drum Major Aaliyah Allen (front) performs during KIPP Memphis Collegiate High School’s Decision Day 2019 at The Cannon Center. KIPP seniors announced that the Class of 2019 were recipients of 384 acceptances to 110 unique colleges.
PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal

“That [summer] really gave me the confidence to leave this place and get more out of my comfort zone,” said Aaliyah, who spent a few weeks that summer at Davidson College in North Carolina, thanks to a KIPP partnership. Roy spent his summer at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Over the past several years, KIPP’s national leaders have focused on increasing college completion rates after a 2011 report found that 31 percent of early-generation KIPP middle school students graduated from (four-year) colleges within six years. (KIPP created a “college persistence fund” that provide small, emergency grants to help its graduates pay for college.)

In Memphis, of the 82 students in KIPP’s first graduating class, in 2015, 66 students went on to college. About 62 percent of those students have completed their degree or are still actively enrolled, said Richard Bailey, director of Memphis’ KIPP through College program.

Roy said he felt prepared to start and finish college, but when it gets hard, he’s thankful to know Aaliyah won’t be far away.

“I feel like so much of adjusting to college is all the social stuff, I’ve never been great at that, but I think I’ll be better in college,” Roy said. “It helps to have a friend who has already stuck with you through so much.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Roy Antoine’s last name.