Sherreda Peggs knew just what she had to do after her brother, Cinque, announced he was the salutatorian at their high school: She had to be valedictorian.
The siblings, who played all manner of sports—even donning heavy coats in late fall to crash through the leaves in games of rugby at their Jackson, Tennessee, home—lovingly trash-talked each other throughout their childhoods. It continues today at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where Cinque is a senior and Sherreda a junior.
“When he told us he was salutatorian, I said, ‘Good job, Cinque, I’m proud of you. But I’m going to be valedictorian,’” Sherreda said.
Cinque left Jackson Central-Merry Early College High School (JCM) No. 2 in the Class of 2019, and Sherreda landed the top academic spot in the Class of 2021. Both graduated from JCM through a special partnership with Jackson State Community College, where the siblings earned not only high school diplomas but associate degrees.
Cinque is on track to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechatronics, robotics and automation engineering in December. He gave up his high school sports and band careers to focus on academics at UTC but also is president of the University’s Brother 2 Brother program, a national student-led organization in which members serve as role models to other minority students.
He wants to intern with a Fortune 500 company before returning to UTC for grad school in fall 2023.
Sherreda hopes to graduate in 2023 with a degree in exercise science and a minor in psychology. Her dream is to be a physical therapist. She also is keeping alive hopes to one day walk on to the UTC women’s basketball team after leading her high school in scoring and joining the 1,000-point club.
“She always wanted to do better than her big brother,” Cinque said. “We pushed each other; there was good competition.”
He said their drive came from two college-graduate parents (University of Memphis and Rust College in Mississippi).
“College is something our parents stressed about almost every day,” Cinque said. “They’d say, ‘You know you guys are going to college, you’re going to get all of your schooling in; that way you can work for yourself and won’t have to work under someone else.’”
Cinque, who won a computer coding competition in high school by designing a website for his brother’s clothing line, said he was drawn to mechatronics—a fairly new course of study that bundles engineering disciplines into one degree but adds a software component. His parents, Walter and Sherida, both have computer science degrees.
“They have different talents and abilities and all have competitive natures and spirits,” Walter Peggs said of his son and daughter, who also have seven other siblings by birth and marriage. “They learned to hone their skills at home as far as competing and participating and facing the challenges.”
Walter describes Cinque as a young man of vision and thought. Even as a youngster, he was reflective and analytical and formulated plans before tackling any situation, the father said.
Sherreda was extra competitive and wanted to show that anything a male could do, she could better, he said.
“They both always wanted to excel,” Walter Peggs said. “I remember when Sherreda did not get a 100 on an exam. She would get upset and would often inquire, ‘Why?’ She not only wanted to achieve but she had a desire to be the best.”
All five of Walter and Sherida’s children (two others were born to each of them in prior marriages) attended Jackson Central-Merry and every sibling brought a studious work ethic, competitive spirit and excellence, JCM Principal Nathan Lewis said.
“Both Cinque and Sherreda are two of our top students to ever come out of our program,” Lewis said.
JCM began in 2015 with one grade and added a grade a year to become a four-year high school with a unique associate’s degree program with Jackson State.
Sherreda medaled statewide in track at the high school level in the 400-meter relay race and the 800. Ever the competitor, after she gave her valedictorian speech before the graduating JCM class, she asked friends and family members whose speech was better: hers or Cinque’s. (The answer was mixed.)
Matt Katras, a JCM science teacher who taught chemistry to both Cinque and Sherreda, said their academic success is “absolutely” unsurprising.
“They’re good at everything,” Katras said. “Speaking, presenting, sports, everything. But they’re still very humble and approachable—a rare combination. When you think about your own children and who they’re going to marry, you want it to be kids like this.”
Their father said the UTC siblings are more than competitive overachievers. They have innate desires to serve mankind.
“They really enjoy helping others,” Walter Peggs said.
When he’s not studying, Cinque spends his time as a legacy with Alpha Phi Alpha, the country’s first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity for African American men. He also has guided Brother 2 Brother back from the pandemic’s days of isolation. He does digital publicity for both organizations and volunteers to promote voting, breast cancer awareness, Earth Day, environmental cleanups and clothing drives.
Cinque also volunteers at Orchard Knob Middle School through UTC’s InterVarsity group, which helps primarily Black students connect to Christ and His missions.
“My family was always there to make sure we were taken care of and felt loved,” Cinque said. “We had an environment that was very warm, safe, with hot meals and a rivalry that expanded all our lives. It made us better.”
For 20-year-old Sherreda, the transition from Jackson to UTC was seamless. For one reason.
“I’m so happy to go to UTC. I encourage everyone to go to college with their big brother,” she said. “It’s so insane how much we cross paths on campus. He’s made it much easier for me.”