From homeless to Harvard: a ‘Mighty Writer’ makes it big

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Philadelphia’s Richard “Tre” Jenkins recently received the email of his life, an acceptance letter from Harvard University. Despite facing numerous challenges — including time in a homeless shelter — the high school senior’s perseverance and hard work earned him a full-ride to the Ivy League school.

Keystone Crossroads’ reporter Annette John-Hall first met Jenkins four years ago, when she was program director at Mighty Writers, a non-profit after-school program.  The two recently reunited in the group’s West Philadelphia studio to catch up and celebrate the achievement, and talk about Jenkins’ journey.

Annette John-Hall: There was a time in your life when your family experienced homelessness. How were you able to cope with that?

Richard “Tre” Jenkins: In the sixth grade, one time I was walking from school with my friend, and he was asking me where I lived because his house was right around the corner from where we were. 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. But that 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.

AJH: You were able to maintain an ‘A’ average despite suffering from a debilitating condition that had you hospitalized for weeks at a time. Tell me about that.

RJ: 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. In the summer of the eighth grade it got really bad. I got hospitalized; they put me on every medicine they had. But 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.

AJH: Did you know you always wanted to attend Harvard?

RJ:. Letters started coming. There was an email I got from Harvard, so I was like, ‘Okay, this is the big time.’ I thought this means I can actually go to these places; at least I know I’m a good candidate.

AJH: How did you get the news that you had been accepted?

RJ: We were in Paris for a spring break educational trip. [Jenkins attends Girard College, a prep school for disadvantaged students in North Philadelphia.] I set the tabs on my computer for all the Ivy League schools I had applied to. I checked Penn; I got wait-listed. I checked Yale and I got denied. In the back of my head I’m already thinking, ‘Okay, Harvard’s going to deny me too.’ And then I open up the Harvard tab and there’s a link to a video saying, ‘Welcome to the class of 2022.’ I was talking to my girlfriend; I threw my phone!

AJH: What’s your major going to be?

RJ: Computer science. I want to create a more intuitive Siri.

AJH: What’s your advice for kids like you who want to fulfill their dreams?

RJ: Stay focused and on the right track. The right track can be different for a lot of people but basically what you want to work toward, you need to be focused on that.

AJH: Who’s your hero?

RJ: My mom [Quiana Hamilton]. She’s a super woman.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. Video by Kimberly Paynter.

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