SALISBURY, N.C. – If you close your eyes as Isaiah Woods talks, you might think you’re listening to a seasoned social activist as he lists his passions and goals: public speaking, writing poetry, advocating for justice, and teaching young African American males how to be good men. He wants to do all of those things, and more – but first, he has to finish high school.

Woods, a 17-year-old senior at Salisbury High who is determined to rise above a disadvantaged childhood, challenges himself daily to step out of his comfort zone.

In addition to rigorous high school classes and a busy extracurricular schedule, Woods takes college-level Career & College Promise (CCP) classes at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College to better prepare him for a prestigious university. His first choice is Stanford University, but he has several other choices in mind, including Yale, Cornell, Harvard and Howard University.

“I first set my sights on going to Stanford when someone told me I couldn’t,” Woods said. “Now I’m doing everything I can to make it happen. Taking college-level classes has helped me challenge myself both academically and personally. It has taught me discipline and helped me learn to be responsible for my time. There’s always something going on, and you have to learn to make good decisions on your own.”

Woods’ courses at Rowan-Cabarrus have varied from English and history to music appreciation and public speaking.

“I was impressed with Isaiah well before our class even began,” said Dr. Jenny Billings, English program chair at Rowan-Cabarrus. “Days before we got started, he reached out to me for helpful tips and to let me know about some dates we’d be working around during summer term. Needless to say, he and I made a great team and he was very successful in English 111.”

Woods became so enamored with his public speaking course at Rowan-Cabarrus that he attended summer school at Harvard University this past summer to learn more about it.

“Public speaking is one of my passions. I think effective communication is one of the biggest challenges society faces today,” he said. “You immediately think about global warming or the economy, but our lack of effective communication causes disruptions every day – in personal relationships, in workplaces, even in our foreign relations – and the fault lines of today create the battle lines of tomorrow. Improving communication may not cure the world’s problems, but it might be a good first step. It’s not easy, but we have to become comfortable with the uncomfortable to reach a point of peace.”

Harvard was an eye-opening and exhilarating experience for the young man from Salisbury, North Carolina. In addition to polishing his public speaking skills, Woods ate new foods, explored the campus and its expansive library, and met interesting people including Malia Obama, actress Yara Shahidi and activist Shaun King.

In college, Woods plans to study pre-law and political science with an eye toward a career in community work and criminal law.

“When I was younger, my goal was always to get an education and be successful enough to get my mother away from a neighborhood where gunshots were normal and kids already have kids.”

His challenges growing up without a father in his life prompted Woods to lead a club at Salisbury High called Men of IMPACT (Inspiring Males and Promoting Achievement, Character and Trust) Brotherhood. He works with school leaders to teach young men life skills they don’t learn in a classroom – how to change a tire, present a firm handshake, write a resume and answer questions in a job interview, write a thank-you note, submit a tax form, or even take someone on a proper date.

“Boys like me, who don’t have male role models, have a hard time learning to be good men,” Woods said. “I would like to continue this program and establish its presence on campus when I go to college, because the need doesn’t end in Salisbury or with high school.”

Woods is purposeful about learning leadership skills through Men of IMPACT and through his roles as president of Crosby Scholars, the Salisbury High Environmental Club, Junior Civitan and the Salisbury Youth Council. He also has been tapped for the prestigious Broyhill Leadership Program and Boys State in addition to the Harvard summer program.

“At first, I thought a leader was someone who didn’t need to ask questions and had it all figured out, but I have come to understand that a good leader is someone who knows how to ask for help and is comfortable enough to trust others to do their jobs,” Woods said. “My journey has taught me to accept my imperfections and learn from my mistakes. That’s how you prepare to do great things.”

For more information about the Career & College Promise program’s dual enrollment opportunities for high school students, please visit