ORLANDO — A Morven teen had a rare chance to take advantage of developing professional skills and networking with the nation’s top leaders earlier this month. Now, he plans to bring what he learned back home.
Benjamin Tillman, 17, an 11th-grader at Anson County Early College, was one of only 100 students chosen from around the country to participate in the 2017 Disney Dreamers Academy in Orlando, Florida from March 9-12. Tillman applied for the academy and learned of his acceptance last year.
The four-day event included networking events, interviewing practice, motivational speakers, free items and a chance to hear speeches by or meet Steve Harvey, Cam Newton and other celebrities.
Tillman was given the red carpet treatment as soon as he arrived, and had the chance to tour Disney World.
“There was a lot of ice-breaker dinners so I could meet with the rest of the students, and it’s crazy, because you wouldn’t think that you could meet 99 children and be so close to them, but I have this bond thing with them where it’s just like we’ve known each other forever,” he said. “We have a group chat and stuff, so we went to dinners together and got to ride rides, and there was so many guest speakers.”
The high schoolers were given the chance to choose courses catering to different interests. Tillman, who runs his late father’s business, Ben Ben Productions, chose the technology track. The teen is currently pursuing an associate’s degree through South Piedmont Community College.
In the Deep Dive of Technology career session, Tillman enjoyed tinkering with Disney electronics.
“It was fun,” he said. “We actually had these things called Magic Bands — you know, those things that you scan to get on rides; it’s like the Fast Pass if you ever go to CaroWinds — but my Deep Dive actually got the chance to recreate, to recode, the Magic Bands. So we could, like, make it a different color, or make it a different sound, so I had a chance to recode those.”
The night before the commencement ceremony, the students were given a stack of business cards with the academy info and their name and brushed up on their professional skills.
“So everybody takes their Deep Dives and what they learned, and their projects and what they got to do, and they showcase it,” he said. “They taught us how to network, what’s the polite way to shake somebody’s hand, and look somebody in the eye and ask for their business cards, to talk about your dream…It was fun. It kind of made you feel mature.”
In addition to Steve Harvey and Cam Newton, also met or heard from Mikki Taylor, former Beauty and Cover director and now editor-at-large of Essence Magazine, Steve Harvey’s daughters Brandi and Karli, Disney Dreamers Academy Executive Champion Tracey Powell and many others.
This was the tenth year Disney has held the academy of 100 students, making these the 1000th students to participate. Tillman said the atmosphere was “really hyped” and that the theme of the year was “Power of 10.” He was given a free bookbag, watch, tablet, engraved class ring and more.
Tillman’s family also enjoyed the trip. The teen was originally planning on attending with his mother, Cynthia, but the family turned it into a vacation, so his sisters and nephew were also able to go. His mother went to chaperone sessions offered by Disney, and the family got to tour the park, go on rides and receive free food vouchers for park food.
Before the academy, Tillman planned to finish his associate’s degree when he graduates high school, then attend a major four-year university to obtain a degree in computer engineering.
The Deep Dive of Technology session helped him visualize his dream.
“I got a lot out of it,” he said. “It was for people who know what they wanted to do; some people didn’t know. I was one of those ones who knew what they wanted to do, so they encouraged me. I learned stuff that I never knew about technology, the different fields of technology that can occur at Disney World.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go in technology at first, but it was like, you’ve got to have a dream, so I just said, ‘Okay, I’m going to be in technology.’ So they kind of confirmed with me that this is a good field for me,” he continued. “It was so interesting, and I’m a more hands-on person, so that way, I got a chance to work with some of the ‘Disney magic,’ as they like to call it.”
Tillman hopes to maintain many of the connections he made while in Florida, not just with his peers, but with high-level executives and mentors he met. He said he made several good friends and was inspired by the others’ dreams and successes, and the “family bond” they developed while there. Some of his new friends are already planning a reunion.
Now, Tillman, who is a fan of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, still wants to go into technology, but would like to work for Disney. He also wants to lead his own company as an industrial technology designer, and plans to do “some innovative stuff” of his own.
“I want to bring some of the stuff people say is going to happen in 2021 and just bring it to life,” he said.
He’s even considering applying to Harvard University.
“One thing they told me is that there’s an easier chance to get into Harvard than the Disney Dreamers Academy,” he said. “It’s like two percent to get into Harvard, and one percent to get in the academy.”
He also wants to be a motivational speaker. Speaking to children will be the first step in giving back to his community, he said. He has already been asked to speak at his church, House of Faith Outreach Ministries, and plans to reach out to leaders of the county schools to ask about speaking to groups of younger children.
The people he met inspired him to help lift up others. He filled his notebook with wisdom he gathered while there: “‘If the sky’s the limit, then how did we end up on the moon?’ ‘Be comfortable being you, be persistent, don’t change.’ ‘Don’t live in a ‘What if,’ like ‘What if I don’t make it?’ Say ‘What if it works’ instead of ‘What if it doesn’t work?””
“I really gained positive role models,” Tillman said. “I’ve been through a lot of stuff, and they encouraged me. I was so inspired by every single one. I gained the knowledge to be myself and go for my dreams, not to let anyone tell me different, to live my dreams, walk by faith and not by sight, and don’t let anybody tell you what to do.”
Now, Tillman will work to hold on to the magic and momentum of his experience at Disney.
“They try to teach that it’s supposed to be a magical experience and not feel ordinary, and to know how to maintain it,” he said. “The magic in you. This academy is for you to see the life you’re working for.”
Despite what happens, he wants to hold on to that — and he thinks he can.
“I feel like I need to keep moving forward, keeping God first.”
With that, he’s excited.
“My future is looking really bright.”
Reach reporter Imari Scarbrough at 704-994-5471 and follow her on Twitter @ImariScarbrough.