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Once-homeless Penn student aims high

Every day last summer, Steven Vaughn-Lewis would update his Facebook status: 64 more days . . . 63 . . . 62 . . . counting the days "until Penn."

Every day last summer, Steven Vaughn-Lewis would update his Facebook status: 64 more days . . . 63 . . . 62 . . . counting the days "until Penn."

What one freshman year will do.

Today, the tall and lanky 19-year-old who had barely left his Strawberry Mansion neighborhood has his sights on visiting China, a career in international affairs, and, at last, a driver's license.

For Steven, the University of Pennsylvania opened doors in ways this former foster child never imagined.

"I'm kind of amazed at how everything turned out," he said in his easy, soft-spoken way.

"Coming into Penn, a lot of people saw my background and worried, hoping I might be able to make it this far. The fact that I did makes me feel really accomplished."

Already, the kid who was guided by so many on his way to college is working to give back.

This summer, as head of his fraternity's philanthropy committee, he'll go to a weeklong leadership conference in Albany, N.Y., hoping to come back with ideas and strategies to really make a difference.

"I just don't want to go out and plant trees," he said. "I want to actually plan an event that's going to benefit a lot of people continuously" - maybe a tutoring program, he offered.

Long term, his plans span the globe.

At a recent book signing, he met Bangladeshi economist and banker Muhammad Yunus, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for developing microcredits - loans given to aspiring entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans.

"His bank has millions of customers!" says Steven. "When I see that, I want to do something like that. Like, wow. He took what he learned and was able to benefit so many people. Stuff like that inspires me."

When Steven was little, with his mother suffering from mental illness, he was at times homeless, out of school, and in foster care, until his grandmother rescued him when he was 8.

A series of mentors also stepped in. An elementary school counselor recommended Masterman, where Steven maintained a 4.0 grade-point average and earned a full academic scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. He aimed to become a surgeon.

"I knew it was going to be tough," he said, "but I felt I would be able to rise up to the challenge."

As it turned out, Steven's biggest challenge was staying awake.

Premed, he loaded his first semester with science courses: chemistry, chemistry lab, neurobiology, and psychology.

After school, he took the bus to the Microsoft School of the Future, where he worked 22 hours a week as an administrative assistant, a job he's had since ninth grade, to ease the strain on his grandmother's fixed income.

He'd return to his campus apartment and study, sometimes until the sun came up.

"There were times when my stress level was through the roof," he remembered.

One Penn mentor, Camille Charles, associate director of the Center for African Studies, worried the eager freshman had taken on too much.

"It's not going to come as easily as it did," Charles said of Steven's high school achievements. "I told him you can't work 20 hours and still get straight A's. But he had to figure that out for himself."

Weighted by academic, economic, and social pressures, Charles said that at Penn, African American students are twice as likely as white students to drop out.

"Students like him don't study any less. They make up for having to work more by sleeping less."

His science-laden first semester, Steven earned a GPA of 3.41.

"I could have done a lot better," he said, disappointed in himself. "I have to stay on top of my game, so I can compete. . . . Everyone wants to be the best, and so do I."

Barack Obama's historic election - the first vote Steven ever cast - became a call to action.

"Being a surgeon is definitely a noble goal. I want to be able to change the world on a much larger scale, instead of operating on one person at a time."

By second semester, he'd changed course: modern political thought, calculus, Chinese fiction/drama, and economics, his favorite class.

He got all A's except for calculus.

The kid who last year was uncertain he was Ivy League material now says, "The pressure is definitely gone. I feel comfortable at Penn. I feel like I belong here."

He yearns to go abroad, as many of his classmates have. "When I talk to a person who seems pretty smart, when I ask, 'Have you traveled outside the United States?,' the answer is always yes," he observed.

So Steven jumped when his new best friend, Jin Guan, a year ahead of him, invited him to China this winter for a cousin's wedding.

They compete with each other, push each other, support each other.

"Jin is going to be president of China one day," Steven said with a laugh of his friend's ambition. "We motivate each other to become better men."

Jin, 22, who arrived in the United States eight years ago not speaking English, called Steven "a very inspirational person."

"When he has an idea, he'll present it with passion, and say, 'Jin, let's do it,' and I feel empowered to do it as well."

The two fraternity brothers are leaders in Bridges for Integration, a group Jin founded to promote cultural understanding at Penn.

Steven will spend the summer working full time to save for his China trip and - if he passes his driving test - for a car.

Next semester, with a heavier load, including Chinese, he may give up his office job for work-study.

His grandmother - who once made Steven call every 15 minutes when he left the house to play basketball - rejoices that he's taking off.

"He's a little chickie to me," said Loretta Ford. "He wants to try his wings. . . . This is what he wants to do, and I just let him go. I just say my prayers and hope for the best. That's all you can do."

To read a story on Steven's journey to college: