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From bullies and shelters to Harvard on a full ride | Helen Ubiñas

A Girard College student and Mighty Writer is headed to Harvard University.

At Girard College's Founders Hall, Richard "Tre" Jenkins, a local Girard College student who accepted a full ride to Harvard.   MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
At Girard College's Founders Hall, Richard "Tre" Jenkins, a local Girard College student who accepted a full ride to Harvard. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff PhotographerRead moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Well, the bullies got one thing right.

They used to taunt Richard "Tre" Jenkins by calling him "Harvard," a dig at the bookworm whose smarts made him a constant target.

And come September, that's where Jenkins will be — on a full ride.

How you like him now, bullies?

I adored the disarmingly humble 18-year-old after spending a few hours with him at Girard College, the boarding school he attends in North Philly and where he is this year's valedictorian.

For people who don't know much about the first-through-12th boarding school — and, I admit, I didn't, despite its being around since 1848 — it would be easy to assume that Jenkins and other students who attend the picture-postcard place live in a 43-acre bubble.

But this is a full-scholarship school for students who come from single-parent families with limited financial resources, and as we stood on the steps of Founders Hall, its huge marble columns casting afternoon shadows around us, Jenkins talked about life beyond the stone walls that surround the school.

Jenkins' mom, Quiana McLaughlin, moved from Philadelphia when he was in elementary school partly because of the violence in their neighborhoods. She and his younger brothers recently left Philly again to North Carolina for similar reasons.

Jenkins recalled moving a lot when he was a kid, first to Tennessee and then to Florida, where his mother would pay for motels when she could and then turn to shelters when she couldn't.

He doesn't like to talk about those times; he's fiercely protective of his mother, but he concedes that his desire to go to Harvard University and find a way to combat poverty has a lot to do with his experiences as a child:

Saving half of a TV dinner in case there wasn't more food later.

Walking down one shelter's long, scary — at least to a young boy — hallway to the showers only to discover there was just cold water.

"My last memory of Florida is walking for miles on a highway with a TV that my dad had gotten me for Christmas in both my hands, while my mom pushed the stroller and some other stuff," he said.

"It was a bad time."

Through it all, books became his constant companion, starting with A Series of Unfortunate Events, which taught him words that he thrilled to incorporate into conversations but that bullies used against him.

He learned early how and when to downplay his smarts, at least in front of other kids.

But never in front of his mother, who always stressed the importance of education and who always found a way to make sure her son had what he needed for school, even if it meant tracking down free book-bag giveaways. (For the record, she never doubted for a second that he'd get into Harvard. "I was not surprised," she said.)

And never in front of friends at his second home at Mighty Writers, an organization that works with students to improve their writing.

When he stopped by the West Philly office last week to share his news, program director Khalia Robinson didn't immediately grasp the meaning behind the crimson Harvard sweatshirt he wore.

When she did, she screamed. "I was so excited."

Crazy to think that Jenkins almost didn't apply.

"There's a lot of places I didn't think possible — including Harvard," he admitted. "I don't know, I guess I just thought: I'm black. And I'm not that smart.'"

But then the email from the admissions office landed.

Now, he realizes it was a generic mail sent to many graduating seniors. But at the time, he took it as a sign. If they thought enough to send him an email, he recalled, laughing, he must have a shot.

He applied. But not before seeing if financial aid was an option. Many of the schools he got into, he couldn't afford with the limited help they offered.  He was thrilled to see that Harvard pays 100 percent of tuition for students from households that earn less than $65,000 a year. (His godfather also started a GoFundMe page to give him some money through college.)

Jenkins was on a school trip in Paris on the big day. He kept refreshing the admissions office portal, barely able to breathe as he waited.

And then …

"Dear Richard,

Congratulations! I am delighted to inform you that the Committee on Admissions has admitted you to the Harvard Class of 2022."

He jumped and screamed and made all the calls, starting with his mother.

But only on the flight back did it all finally sink in. "It's been such a crazy road here," he said.

He cried.

Harvard, here he comes.