High School Genius Overcomes Poverty, Earns $3 Million in College Scholarships

Chen at work. Photo: Courtesy of Elk Grove Unified School District.The success story of Lloyd Chen, 17, is the stuff that dreams are made of. Raised in poverty by a single mom who emigrated from South Korea to the U.S., the young man from Elk Grove, California, recently received nearly $3 million in full scholarships, earning one at every top university he applied to. He’s chosen to attend Harvard University, which he said was his “dream,” starting this fall.

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“I’m so excited, and so grateful,” said Chen, who was the valedictorian at Laguna Creek High School. He was also offered a free ride at Yale, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and UC Davis.

Chen chose Harvard, he told Yahoo! Shine, because “It’s where I felt like I could grow the most as an individual, and because, in Boston, “there’s so much vitality.” He'll arrive on his 18th birthday, August 19. As for a major, he's deciding between economics, psychology and engineering.

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He said he'd never given much thought to his personal hardships before he started writing about them for his college application essays. “When I started telling my story, I got a little teary because I didn’t know how almost sad it sounded,” he said. “But I was proud, too, because I never used these circumstances as an excuse.”

Chen was born in Sacramento shortly after his family immigrated to the U.S. His father abandoned them shortly thereafter, leaving him and his two older sisters to be raised by their mother, who is unable to work due to clinical depression and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Living together in a small apartment paid for in part by federal assistance, everyone in the family took care of each other, Chen’s sister told local news station KCRA. Until the middle of his sophomore year, his mom drove him a wearing 20 miles daily to the nearest school that offered the highly regarded International Baccalaureate (IB) program, often waiting in the parking lot all day to save money on gas.

When Chen saw his friends with cell phones and nice clothes and money for nights, he sometimes felt like he “didn’t fit in,” he said. But he stayed focused on his studies.

Chen transferred to nearby Laguna Creek High School, which was closer to home, when it started its own IB program, the “most rigorous course of high school study in the world,” his guidance counselor, Alycia Sato, told Yahoo! Shine.

Chen’s sisters had both gone off to college by his sophomore year, so the responsibility of looking after his mother fell to the young man—who was taking many extra classes at a community college and serving as vice president of his school’s Key Club in addition to his regular studies.

“It’s been really difficult because I know I can’t ask [my mother] for things,” he said. “I don’t want to put any burden on her.” He added that she never pressured him academically, but just wanted him “to be safe and healthy.”

Sato told Shine that Chen “is the top kid I’ve ever been involved with in 25 years,” adding that he not only had lucky incredible emotional support from his family, but “resiliency,” and “the inner drive to be successful.” Chen is both mature beyond his years and humble about his achievements, she explained.

“His values and his motivations are all intrinsic,” she said. “It’s not, ‘I want to be number one,’ but ‘I want to be the best that I can be.’”

Though Chen made regular visits to Sato’s office, wanting to discuss everything from college choices to topics in the news, he hadn't mentioned his personal struggles until senior year, when he wondered whether he should include the details in his essays.

“He said, ‘I don’t want anybody to take me out of pity,’” Sato recalled. She encouraged him to share his experiences, telling him, “They need to know everything you’ve overcome.”

After he was accepted to all nine schools he applied to, the far-flung schools flew him out to visit their campuses. “My trips were fantastic,” he said. “I had never visited a college campus before, so I was in awe.” During his visit to Harvard in April, he found himself put on lockdown with everyone else there after a police officer was shot and killed on the nearby MIT campus—an experience he described as “pretty intense.”

Upon his return, Sato recalled, he talked not about his fear during the situation, but about how it made him “want to figure out why people do what they do” in this world. “So it just created another type of curiosity in him,” she said.

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