Teen who grew up in homeless shelters earns full ride to Harvard University

Richard Jenkins

A total of 39,506 people applied for a spot in Harvard University's undergraduate class of 2021, and just 2,037 were accepted — that's an acceptance rate of roughly 5.2 percent. Zero students were accepted off the waitlist.

Now, imagine earning one of those coveted spots after spending your early years moving between homeless shelters, a hospital bed and motel rooms. That's what Richard Jenkins was doing when, in grade school, he became so committed to academics that he went on to become the valedictorian of his high school and earn a spot at Harvard.

In an interview with Philadelphia public radio station WHYY, Jenkins recalls being ashamed of his upbringing. "In the sixth grade, one time I was walking from school with my friend, and he was asking me where I lived," he recalled. "The shelter looked like a big house — it could have been a mansion. So I told him, 'Yeah, that's my house right there,' because I was so embarrassed to say I lived in a shelter."

The moment inspired him to focus on school, despite bullies who nicknamed him "Harvard."

"That's when I realized I've got to buckle in, because I can't have my potential kids going through what I'm going through now," he explained.

Indeed, Jenkins did buckle in. In middle school, he attended a non-profit after-school program called Mighty Writers that helps students with their writing skills. With the program's support, Jenkins began the competitive application process to attend a selective high school, marking a difficult time in the young man's life.

"My migraines started in the eighth grade because of all of the stress I was dealing with at the time. There was a lot of pressure to get into high school and succeed. And then my dad had a heart attack," he recalls for WHYY.

Jenkins' condition worsened and he ended up spending significant time in the hospital, sometimes for weeks at a time. "I was eventually able to fight through it and get my work done because, at the end of the day, that was what was the most important to me," he says.

That work paid off, and he was accepted at Girard College, a full-scholarship boarding high school for students from single-parent families with limited financial resources.

Richard Jenkins at Mighty Writers in Philadelphia

At Girard, he earned straight-A's, took college classes, held an internship at a tech startup and was named his class valedictorian. He applied to several schools, including three in the Ivy League. He was waitlisted at the University of Pennsylvania, rejected by Yale and accepted by Harvard.

When he read the good news, Jenkins says he threw his phone in disbelief.

Jenkins plans to major in computer science at Harvard with the goal of inventing a "more intuitive Siri." Since Harvard pays 100 percent of tuition for students from households earning less than $65,000 a year, he will receive a full ride. His godfather started a GoFundMe page to help cover the additional expenses.

"I didn't realize it was a possibility until last year," he tells CNBC Make It. "My goal has always been to go to a school where I wouldn't have to pay and where I wouldn't graduate with debt." He assumed this would mean he would attend a smaller school nearby.

This is how much education you need to land a job at the world's biggest tech companies
This is how much education you need to land a job at the world's biggest tech companies

"I'm most excited about the opportunity to expand my knowledge, because there's so much history inside Harvard's halls and so many people from different backgrounds, and I think it's the perfect place to cultivate a mind," he says.

Looking back on his experience, Jenkins says he wishes he had been less hard on himself, and also thinks that schools could better support students going through situations like his by offering a more open line of dialogue between kids and teachers. "I think that having more communicative teachers is important, because just having someone to talk to can make a huge difference," he tells CNBC Make It.

Soon, Jenkins will speak at his high school graduation and he plans to talk to his class about the importance of responsibility. His advice for other students is to figure out what they want out of life, focus and never give up.

"My drive comes from just wanting to see myself and my family be in a better situation and I do think drive is important for everybody, but what's more important is that once you find what it is that you want, you have to keep working for it," he says. "People may think that they've done enough, but it's never enough."

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