From Homeless to Harvard, Houston Teen Valedictorian Makes It to Ivy League University

May 31, 2019 Updated: May 31, 2019

A high school student from Houston who was once homeless has been accepted to Harvard after he graduated as valedictorian and earned the highest marks in his class at Energy Institute High School.

Derrick Ngo, 18, who grew up without his parents by his side most of his life, found himself homeless at the age of 17, and has faced countless challenges to get to where he is today.

“I grew up with the odds stacked against me,” Ngo said in an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle.

“For me and my siblings, there was a lot of instability. My mother was heavily involved in gambling and she got involved with criminal activities. She’s been incarcerated maybe eight or more times,” he told ABC13.

Ngo, one of six siblings, grew up without a father, and attended 12 different schools between kindergarten and 8th grade.

“We often didn’t have that much food. We didn’t have that much money. We didn’t have a stable source of income and that was one of my biggest struggles growing up—that lack of parental guidance,” Ngo told Fox 26.

With no father figure in his life, and his mother constantly going in and out of jail, Ngo decided at the age of 15 to take his future into his own hands by living by himself and excelling academically.

“You learn quickly that to survive you have to pay attention … When I entered high school, I decided that I needed to attend one school for all four years.

“To do that, I had to live alone and not depend on my mother’s transient lifestyle,” the 18-year-old explained in the Houston Chronicle article.

At the age of 15, Ngo got by and lived independently with occasional rent checks from his mother, but at times he struggled to pay for essentials and rationed his meals, living off cans of tuna and crackers.

He found himself homeless at one point when he was 17.

“To become the antithesis of my family and of my mother is one of the biggest inspirations I’ve had growing up,” he told Fox 26.

Ngo said he used his determination to succeed to push himself at school, where he achieved top grades.

“I realized that if I didn’t use school and education and the resources that were available to me, then there would be no way that I would get out of the situation I was in,” Ngo said.

Now, the valedictorian says he owes much of his success to EMERGE—a non-profit organization that helps low income, under-represented, and high achieving students get into selective universities—and his mentor Judy Le.

“If I didn’t EMERGE, I probably wouldn’t be attending a school like Harvard,” Ngo told ABC13.

“EMERGE has given me access to test prep, resume development training. It’s given me an opportunity to go on a college tour.”

Ngo also received offers from University of Texas at Austin, Princeton, and Columbia, but will start his first year with Harvard this fall, majoring in either economics or philosophy, according to Fox 32.

“Growing up I didn’t really believe that I had the potential, but as long as you have the motivation and discipline, anything is possible,” he added.

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