In the worst of times, 17-year-old Lukas Novak avoided going home and “couch-hopped” during the summer of his freshman year in high school.
Even in better times, his mother’s income from hairstyling work could not cover the family’s apartment rent. And last winter, when she wasn’t working, she said, she was helping two other family members cope with personal crises.
But among the annals of students driven to perform, Lukas became a standout at Folsom High School. He finished his senior year last week as a valedictorian with a full-ride scholarship to Princeton University. He became a Presidential Scholar last month, one of just 141 nationally. He ranked among the top 20 male scorers in California on the SAT, according to Folsom Cordova Unified School District officials. The list of accomplishments goes on.
“He is extremely bright,” said Richard Shaw, a district board member who was attending Thursday night’s graduation ceremonies. “He is a resource we don’t want to squander. We deal with needy kids all the time, and he touches a nerve. We just can’t let this kid fail.”
Lukas is articulate, animated and upbeat; his basic philosophy, he said, is to approach life with a sense of being grateful for what he has and not giving up on what might be.
“I refuse, point blank, to allow my circumstances to define me,” he said, as he and his mother, Rain Wightman, waited outside the stadium for the start of graduation ceremonies last week. Lukas was among those giving a speech, and he paced nervously as he rehearsed.
Lukas said his discipline and drive have been fueled by his desire to escape a challenging and at times unstable home life, and to support his younger brother. He became a voracious reader. He was a member of the campus Mathletes club, president of the Science Club, student representative on the district’s school board and president of the Student Advisory Board. As a member of the school’s Academic Decathlon team, he earned 14 individual medals in Sacramento County and statewide competitions.
Lukas is one of four children. Together, he and his siblings endured two divorces and intermittent poverty. Lukas said that while his mother struggled to support the family, she often “didn’t have time to be a mom.”
“There have been some stressful periods. Our lives almost went over the edge,” Lukas said.
“In a strange way,” he added, “that was fate intervening, because I found figures here to guide me at Folsom High in a big, big way. And these people have become my family.”
Earlier this year, two teachers in the Folsom district – husband and wife Mark and Heidi Nelson – put forth an extraordinary invitation.
“I heard about the trials of their home situation, how it was frequently up in the air,” said Mark Nelson, a math teacher at Folsom High. “I made an offer that if it ever gets to a point where he doesn’t have a place to live, our family would be happy to take him in.”
That situation arose in the spring, when Wightman, unable to pay the rent, made plans to move the family out of Folsom. It wasn’t clear how Lukas would get back and forth to school.
Lukas and his younger brother, 15-year-old Christian, then a sophomore, moved into the Nelson’s Folsom home in early March, joining the couple’s two children, 14-year-old Brock and 15-year-old Parker.
Wightman said she reluctantly gave her permission. “They just needed peace,” she said.
Still, she said, the decision was painful.
“To say it was hard is an understatement,” she said, fighting back tears. “Single parenting with four kids was hard, but I have done it.”
Long before graduation, Lukas’ champions at Folsom High were lining up.
English teacher Wendy Pierce got to know Lukas during his junior year, while he was enrolled in her AP English language and composition class. The same year, Pierce said, she had learned about QuestBridge, a national nonprofit that helps outstanding low-income students connect with Ivy League colleges.
“We help them understand that they cannot only get into a top college but they can attend, because the financial aid that our partner colleges offer is generous,” said Grace Sun, spokeswoman for QuestBridge.
Pierce nominated several students, including Lukas. Then she called Lynette Mathews of The College Planning Center, which specializes in helping students with their college applications. Mathews offered to help Lukas for free.
Mathews said the center guided Lukas through a “pretty exhaustive application,” which includes multiple essays and requires students to have a well-formulated educational plan.
Lukas said he cried when he learned he had been accepted to Princeton with a full-ride scholarship. “I knew we wouldn’t be able to pay for college,” he said.
And the giving continued: After his acceptance, a school counselor contacted Men’s Wearhouse, which agreed to provide Lukas a wardrobe suitable for the Ivy League, no charge. “The wardrobe was a gift of unexpected proportions,” Lukas said.
Lukas said his plan is to study neurobiology, philosophy and math. Freshman orientation is Sept. 3.
Melinda Wilson, Folsom’s Academic Decathlon coach, describes herself as “one of many” advocates for Lukas.
“We have the opportunity to water the seed,” she said, “and he is going to flourish.”