Elk Grove teen goes 9 for 9 in elite college admissions

05/30/2013 12:00 AM

05/30/2013 7:51 AM

Lloyd Chen can't afford the $70 for a high school yearbook. His family can't pay for a graduation party or a trip abroad.

But the Laguna Creek valedictorian has something his fellow graduates don't: nine full-ride offers to elite universities.

The Elk Grove teen graduating today with a 4.79 grade-point average achieved the rare feat of acceptance by all nine schools to which he applied: Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Davis.

He chose Harvard.

"It's been my dream since I was 8 years old," said Chen, 17.

His dream came true in December, when Harvard sent an acceptance letter. "It was the happiest moment of my life," Chen said.

The Cambridge, Mass., university had an acceptance rate of 5.8 percent for its incoming fall 2013 class. Only six students in the Sacramento region were admitted into Harvard this year from the 234 who applied – an even lower 2.6 percent rate – according to Suzy Underwood of the Harvard Club of Sacramento.

"I was so happy for him," said Carmen Chen, who has been friends with Lloyd Chen since they attended school at Barbara Comstock Morse Elementary in Sacramento. "His dream to go to Harvard came true. I honestly didn't have a huge reaction, because I knew all along that he would get in."

Achieving that Harvard dream didn't come easily to the boy who grew up in Elk Grove so poor that most of his clothes were hand-me-downs. Chen, his mother and an older sister live in a two-bedroom apartment paid for by federal rent assistance. They scrape by on government aid for expenses. Another sister is away at college.

His mother, Susie Yun, emigrated from South Korea three years before Chen was born. She has been diagnosed with clinical depression. His father left the family around the time Chen was born.

"Throughout my life, I've learned to grow up without luxuries," he wrote in his college application essay. "I don't need fancy clothes. I don't need expensive SAT classes. I don't even need a father.

"I have something more valuable than luxuries: the foundation to grow and prosper," he added. "My circumstances have not brought me down, but instead, have made me stronger."

Despite an annual sticker price that has climbed to roughly $60,000, Harvard and other top-ranked private universities waive all attendance costs for students whose families earn less than $60,000 a year. The University of California waives tuition and student fees for students whose families earn less than $80,000.

Although top universities offer talented, low-income students generous financial aid packages, researchers from Stanford and Harvard found in a March study that the "vast majority of very-high achieving students who are low income do not apply to any selective college or university."

Chen was an anomaly. Besides his nine full-ride offers, Chen received a Gates Millennium Scholarship that pays for his undergraduate and graduate studies. Chen plans to use it for graduate school and to pick up undergraduate costs that Harvard doesn't cover, ensuring that he does not have to take a campus job.

Chen's perseverance showed itself in middle school when he decided he needed a laptop computer and a camera for his studies. He purchased candy at a store and resold it to students after school to earn money to buy the equipment.

He writes of his mother's growing despair over the family's poverty in his college essay. He also writes about her efforts to keep the family afloat, including repeated efforts to scrape together money to repair their 20-year-old Nissan.

The car's upkeep proved essential Lloyd's freshman year after he asked to attend Mira Loma High School to enroll in its acclaimed International Baccalaureate program. Early each weekday, Lloyd and his mother piled into the old Nissan to drive from Elk Grove to Mira Loma High in Arden Arcade.

Yun said she couldn't afford to make the 38-mile round-trip commute twice each day, so she waited for Chen all day, sometimes sitting in the car reading the newspaper, or taking walks nearby as he took his classes.

Chen didn't want to leave Mira Loma after his freshman year, but he finally relented with prodding from his mother and Laguna Creek counselor Alycia Sato, who became one of his biggest champions. Laguna Creek had just started its own IB program, and Chen was one of the first to sign on.

Founded in 1968, the IB program prepares students for rigorous college study, allows them to earn university credits and helps them gain admission to top colleges.

The move didn't hurt Chen. He scored a 34 out of a possible 36 on his ACT college readiness test. He ranked first in his graduating class and will take the podium at Sleep Train Arena today as the school's valedictorian.

"I'm so happy for him, because he has been working hard since elementary school," Yun said. "He's not that smart. But he works harder than anybody."

"Most people complain. He doesn't complain," she added. "I'm really proud of him."

College counselor Marilyn van Löben Sels said schools actively look for students like Chen who come from low-income families or are first-generation American.

She said most universities – including Harvard – take a holistic approach to admission, looking beyond the grade-point average or test scores.

Tuesday, Chen seemed like any ordinary kid preparing to graduate. He stood in the cafeteria signing other people's yearbooks, waiting for graduation practice to begin. He peered through shaggy hair, wearing the uniform of teens: faded jeans and athletic shoes. A Harvard 2017 T-shirt peeked out from under a gray sweatjacket.

He is looking forward to joining an a cappella club at Harvard. Although he has been leaning toward a major in economics, psychology or engineering, he isn't quite certain yet.

Chen has thrived in math classes, taking the most difficult ones at nearby Cosumnes River College. By the end of his junior year in high school, he had earned an A in calculus 3, linear algebra and differential equations at the community college, Sato said.

Sato met with Chen twice every month. When Chen asked Sato to approve his request to take another college math course at Cosumnes River College, the counselor refused unless Chen agreed to join a club. So he joined the school's Key Club, a volunteer organization.

As vice president of the Key Club, he spearheaded the school's involvement in the 100 Friends Project, which raised money to build a library for poverty-stricken children in Thailand. This school year, Chen was the California-Nevada-Hawaii Key Club District secretary, serving 46,000 members.

Chen didn't stop joining. He was co-president of the Mathletes, vice president of the school's California Scholastic Federation and co-president of Future Business Leaders of America. He also was a member of his Academic Decathlon team. He can often be found tutoring whoever asks, Sato said.

"In over 20 years in education, I have met no student who is the match in dedication to his education and those around him," Sato said. "He truly loves to learn."

Call The Bee's Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert. Read her Report Card blog at http://blogs.sacbee.com/report-card/.

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