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Rock Island junior surprised with full ride to Augustana College

Riley Jones was surprised with the award after rising to national fame for her painting "Black Pride," which now hangs as a mural in downtown Rock Island.

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — Augustana college surprised Riley Jones, a Rock Island high schooler, with a full ride scholarship, thanks to her powerful, bold artwork. 

The check was presented to the junior on Tuesday, Nov. 23, in a complete shock to Jones. Beside her for the awarding - and just as surprised - were her parents and grandparents, who say they couldn't be more proud. 

"I didn't know what to think," said Jones, joking that her first reaction was fear, at seeing a bunch of cameras pointed toward her. "It's an incredible honor." 

If Jones decides to enroll at Augustana, she would begin her undergraduate education in 2023. She says she wants to pursue elementary education.

The college said this one-of-a-kind scholarship was well deserved, thanks to Jones' painting, "Black Pride." It depicts a young Black man, face turned upward, as a stream of tears falls down his cheek. In the background, the words "BLACK PRIDE" are repeated over and over. 

Credit: Riley Jones
Riley Jones' original piece, "Black Pride"

Jones says the piece was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and how she felt unable to do her own part because of the pandemic. However, she says she never expected the drawing to go far. 

"I thought it was just gonna reach the tiny audience I have on Instagram and that's it," she said. "Maybe my parents would like it, that's about it." 

But the piece ended up touching many more people beyond her parents. 

In May, "Black Pride" won first place in the annual Congressional Art Competition for Illinois' 17th District, when Jones was only a sophomore in high school. As a reward, her painting was subsequently displayed in the Cannon Tunnel of the U.S. Capitol Building. 

Then, just a few months later in August, the city of Rock Island unveiled a giant mural of the artwork on 20th Street, across from Leo's Shoe Repair. 

It's why Augustana decided to offer Jones a full-tuition scholarship, saying in a statement, "Riley embodies the type of student Augustana hopes to enroll: creative, curious, and deeply engaged in her community." 

While being surprised with the information, Jones stands in disbelief, at one point shaking her head, as if she couldn't believe it was real. 

"To be honest, the first thing I thought was 'I have a friend who this would be great for,'" Jones said. "We were fully preparing to pay for college tuition by ourselves (and) suddenly it's just handed to us! It takes off a lot of the fear of what happens after school." 

Her father, Jerry Jones, said he was in 'total disbelief' when he saw the words printed on Augustana's giant check. 

"I refused to even consider this as a possibility," he said. "It validates her. It tells her that she not only belongs, but she can be an exceptional part of our community." 

After being awarded the scholarship, father and daughter shared a sweet moment, as he gently kissed her forehead. Jones said he didn't say anything to her in that moment. 

"She said to me, 'You alright, dad?'" he laughed, getting slightly choked up. "There's no words for this. There are times when, for Riley and I, where it's not about words." 

"At Augustana, we are seeking students who are imagining brightly and want to be bold," said Emma Adebayo, Executive Director of Admissions at Augustana. "We couldn't help but think of a more worthy or deserving student to share a little light with and honor in this way." 

And Jones says her own painting has taken on new meanings to her over the past few months. 

"It certainly shifted to more of... I guess, hopefulness," she said. "There's the current pain, but in the mural, it gets brighter the further down you go on the street. Like a new hope in the future."