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Outstanding student spotlight: Meet five of Cumberland County’s brightest students


Sometimes, the cliche most accurately paints the picture. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of outstanding is “marked by eminence and distinction.” It also means “standing out from a group.” These words find their embodiment in students in Cumberland County.
Just as the definitions indicate, five of Cumberland County’s brightest have stood out this month among their peers and are making a difference in their schools and in the world. Read on to meet Rachel, Jalia, Landon, Journey, and Melody, and be inspired by the next generation.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Rachel Bradford
12th Grade, Pine Forest High School, Fayetteville
Why she’s exceptional: Rachel is the founder of OneFayetteville, a nonprofit that supports people experiencing homelessness in Fayetteville. She will attend the Florida Institute of Technology in the fall to study forensic psychology.
On why she started OneFayetteville: If someone doesn’t start it, then who will? That was my thought behind it. When I started, it was the middle of Covid. The homeless downtown, they were all stuck with no help. I had always loved helping whenever I could, so I thought, “Why not just do it more often?”
On why she loves crime shows: It’s definitely [understanding] what makes the person do what they do. I love going into their brains and finding out why they did that. It gets my brain ticking.
On what she learned from seven years of competitive cheerleading before an injury ended her cheerleading career: You’ll always need your team, and don’t take the little things for granted. We went to so many places because of cheer. The competitions were always fun as well. You always got to meet new people.
On her favorite school experience: I’ll always look back on FFA [Future Farmers of America] and all my agriculture classes. I got a whole new family from them. It’s always super nice to be around them, and you get to learn so many new things. You get to go on trips to conferences and random places like Mount Olive, where we [the club] tried pickles. It’s not a super big thing at our school, but once people try it out, they love it.
On one thing she wished she could have done while in school: After I quit cheer, I wanted to do another sport: tennis. I didn’t have the time. I started lessons about a month ago. I haven’t been too consistent with it, but it’s something I’ve enjoyed getting into.

Jalia Branch
8th Grade, Spring Lake Middle School,
Spring Lake
Why she’s exceptional: Jalia is headed into high school with a breadth of academic and extracurricular experiences behind her — playing volleyball and soccer, participating in numerous clubs, and high academic achievement. Capricia Smalls, a social worker at John Griffin Middle School, called Jalia “an excellent representation of Spring Lake Middle School.”
On what motivates her in academics: I really want to do something big for myself. It motivates me to do better. I want to do the best for myself.
On whether she prefers volleyball or soccer: Volleyball is just my sport. When I go to a practice, my head is just clear and I can get in that zone.
On her favorite clubs in school: The ones I prefer the most are InfluenceHer and SGA [Student Government Association]. Those are two of my clubs that are focused on talking to other students and people around me. I’ve talked to a lot of people that I would have never talked to.
On InfluenceHER: It’s a girl mentoring group, and we’re focused on building not just the morale of kids in the club, but other girls around the school, to reach out to other students and show other people what can be done.
On moving to an early college program next year: I’m still nervous, going somewhere else that a lot of people [her friends, schoolmates, and teachers] aren’t going to. I did apply to early colleges, and I did get into the one that I wanted to go to, Cross Creek [Early College High School in Fayetteville].

Landon Witherspoon
8th Grade, John Griffin Middle School, Fayetteville
Why he’s exceptional: John Griffin Middle School Principal Latreicia Allen said Landon “demonstrates the pillars of scholarship, leadership and service” at the school. As a participant in Student Government Association [SGA], band, and other extracurricular activities, he has done many things but plans to focus on pursuing a career in acting in the future.
On his favorite school subject, social studies: It gives me a deeper understanding of the world. Social studies for me is a sign of culture, world history, and much more. This subject is special to me because I am interested in our global connections.
On his experience in SGA, in which he serves as 8th grade representative: I choose to be involved in SGA because I see SGA as a way to help my peers, my school, and my community. I enjoy representing my classmates as an SGA representative and I like working with them to improve our school.
On playing trumpet in the school band: I chose a trumpet because my brother and father played the trumpet as well. The person who inspired me the most to play the trumpet was my father. I enjoy playing in the band because I get to play in concerts and events hosted by the band and I also enjoy being able to audition for All-District and All-County [Bands].
On going to high school next year: I’m both nervous and excited about going to high school next year. I am excited because I get to attend school with my brother. I am nervous to face the challenges that may come my way during the four-year journey of high school, but I know my brother will help me navigate those challenges.
On why he wants to be an actor: I have always had a passion for acting but have actually never taken any acting classes. I am the family comedian and I enjoy laughing with my family and friends. Another reason I would like to become an actor is to showcase my talent and make people laugh.

Journey DeWalt
7th Grade, Douglas Byrd Middle School, Fayetteville
Why she’s exceptional: Like the other students featured here, Journey is an overachiever in the best sense of the word, playing sports, participating in clubs, and excelling academically. Douglas Byrd Principal Christina DiGaudio said Journey “helps to shine a positive light on our school community.”
On her favorite subject in school: My favorite subject in school is science because it is entertaining and my teacher makes it fun and engaging.
On what she likes most about playing volleyball: What I like most about volleyball is being on a team and increasing your athletic ability. I do plan to play in high school because that could bring scholarship opportunities.
On what she does as a member of the school forensics team: What I do as a member of the forensics team is I remember a speech and I recite it. I decided to join because I enjoy doing extracurriculars, and this just happened to spark my interest.
On what it means for her principal to call her a “model student”: It means that I have done a good job of separating myself from others.
On what she wants to do for a career: I have a career goal to go to an early college as a part of getting a degree in sports medicine.

Melody Smith
4th Grade, William H. Owen Elementary School, Fayetteville
Why she’s exceptional: It’s fitting that Melody is featured on the stage at Cape Fear Regional Theatre, where she has participated in multiple productions. This youngster has a “dynamic personality” and displays “impressive academic performance,” according to William H. Owen Elementary Principal Rachel Andress. Melody also recently represented the school in the district’s spelling bee.
On her favorite subject in school: I really like ELA [English Language Arts] because I like reading new stories and comprehension is important.
On her participation in the district spelling bee: I thought the spelling bee was exciting. There were a lot of great spellers and it was nice.
On what she likes most about performing at Cape Fear Regional Theatre: You get to entertain the community and it is always fun to work with such good people. I also love the creativity.
On her favorite things to do outside of school: I usually just put on music, watch “Dance Moms,” and dance when I’m bored. It’s really fun.
On what she wants to be when she grows up: I wanna be an actress or comedienne, but I always thought about being a doctor. Who knows? There is so much to do in the world.