The Road From
Homeless To Harvard
By Danny Schrafel/ email@example.com
Chan Kang walks the halls of
Walt Whitman High School as many things a senior who is about
to graduate, a champion Mathlete, a piano prodigy, and most recently,
that kid who got a full ride to Harvard University.
But few who pass him know of the struggles he faced on his way to
the top, including being rendered homeless.
It is a situation few teenagers ever expect to be in, but for Kang,
who was born and raised in South Korea, it was just another hurdle.
Kang left the Asian nation in 2010, bound for the United States.
He would live with his fathers friend and enter Walt Whitman
High School as a sophomore.
One problem: Kang spoke very little English.
Im aware that I still have an accent, but back then
it was not at a comprehensible level. People would always ask me
again, What? What? It was very frustrating, Kang,
who just turned 20, said.
He showed a tremendous aptitude, however, when it came to math.
He would take AP Calculus, the highest level math course offered
at Whitman, as a junior. English soon wouldnt be a problem,
as he would test out of ESL within a year and later score a 100
on the English regents. Throw in the seven other AP courses he would
take, his extra-curricular resume and his exceptionally high
SAT scores, and it may come as no surprise that one of the countrys
most prestigious colleges would offer him a full four-year academic
scholarship worth $56,800 per year.
Encouraged by his father and over his mothers protests, Kang
said he decided to come to the States because he thought there were
more opportunities for him.
I wanted to learn more about what I didnt know. When
I look back at three years ago before I came to America, now I know
I was very innocent and immature, he said. I want to
go as far as I can the highest level of maturity.
While excitement bubbled within him at first, reality quickly hit.
Very soon I started realizing how hard it was going to be
not living with my family, he said.
Aside from not feeling he could truly be himself Its
very subtle, but you cant be fully yourself when youre
not with your own family, he said Kang had to figure
out a great deal on his own, from getting vaccinated and obtaining
insurance to filling out documents for college.
Those little things I didnt know my mother was doing
for me, Im doing myself now, he said. I learned
not to complain sort of, because it wasnt going to help me.
As it turns out, he was right. Complaining didnt help Kang
find him a new place to live at the end of his sophomore year when
the family he was staying with moved out of the school district.
I realized I was going to be basically homeless, and I started
looking for help, Kang recalled.
The first person he approached for help was his father, with whom
he had a strained relationship. Kang blames him for his parents
divorce, saying his father abused his mother.
Talking to his father about where he would live only aggravated
Kangs situation, the student said.
I was asking him how much he thought he could afford to give
me so I could pay, and he never answered, Kang said. Somehow
the argument ended up with my father kind of cursing at me and at
that point I just couldnt stand it anymore.
It was in many ways the nail in the coffin when it came to their
relationship. Prior to that conversation, Kang said, lots
of little things hurt their relationship, like his fathers
lack of empathy when he didnt know certain things.
I couldnt tell the difference between paper towels and
tissues when I first came here. I thought it was kind of natural
but he kind of made me feel like I was really stupid and idiotic
for that, Kang said.
Kangs call for help was the last time he spoke to his father.
After that I stopped contacting him, and he did the same thing,
and since then weve never talked, Kang said.
Not wanting to leave the school district and struggling to find
a home, Kang said he found through a community website a Korean
woman willing to rent him a room. She lived 4 miles from the high
school. He spent half of his junior year with her when things started
to turn sour.
She was charging too much, and my mom had to pay a lot, and
she wasnt keeping promises she said she was going to keep,
One of those promises was agreeing to drive Kang to and from his
many extracurricular activities, leaving him to take to the street
on his bike.
But it was better than being homeless.
I didnt have any other place to go, so I stayed there
and endured through it, Kang said.
His saving grace came in the second half of his junior year
the year he made lots of friends when he joined marching band
and actually could speak some English. After learning of Kangs
situation, a friend in that band told his family, and the students
parents asked Kang if he wanted to live with them.
It was a simple gesture with life-changing consequences. Kang has
been with the family since, and still finds the whole thing hard
I cant believe how Im being treated there. Im
not family and theyre treating me as if I were their family,
he said. Just the fact that they accepted me to live with
them shows how nice they are. I dont think I would be brave
and nice enough to accept someone who I never knew to live with
me, but they did.
Cases like Kangs fall under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education
Assistance Act, a federal law that guarantees enrollment and educational
stability for homeless children. The act provides federal funding
to states for district programs that serve homeless students.
Wherever a kid is living, wherever they sleep, is where they
go to school, said South Huntington School District Deputy
Superintendent Jacqueline Harris.
Harris said South Huntington is seeing an increasing number of homeless
students in recent years.
I dont want to give an exact number, but over the last
three years that number continues to grow, she said, adding
that South Huntington is still low on the list of Long Island schools
when it comes to homeless students.
Regardless, the increasing number makes laws like McKinney-Vento,
which offer displaced children stability and familiarity, critical
for their educational success. A stable home, after all, made all
the difference in Kangs case.
To think his classmates family ultimately took him in
and gave him the stability he needed, gave him a family, its
such a tribute to the sense of community and caring we have here
in south Huntington, Harris said. I think in general
when people see a situation where people can be of help, many, many
people step up. Fortunately for us, that happened here.
Taking Kang in for which the family does not receive money
from his mother has changed the students entire last
year and a half. Now in a stable home, Kang said he has been able
to focus more on school and the goals he set for himself.
A math whiz, he loves the subject for its absoluteness.
He helped lead Whitmans Mathletes to the Suffolk County title
this year. He also loves music, a passion he developed at Whitman,
and can often be found in the music room cranking out tunes on the
piano. He plans to major in math or music at Harvard.
Kang is also humble, almost to an unfathomable degree. He will tell
you that he wanted to play trumpet in marching band, but wasnt
very good at it so he settled on the marimba. He will also tell
you the secret to his success is not what one might think.
Some people think Im smart and very talented, but thats
not true. Its because of the way I was raised and the way
I was educated, he said.
He didnt even want to tell anyone he got into Harvard.
He wanted to see if he could keep that a secret, his
guidance counselor, Christopher Tuohy, said. I said, No,
you have to celebrate! Its a good thing.
Tuohy is someone Kang said he owes much of his success to, as well
as others in the South Huntington faculty, particularly his ESL
teacher, Anita Ramirez. They reached out to him early on when no
one else did.
Nobody really was talking to me at that point because basically
nobody could understand me, and I am not the most social person,
Kang said. I was very happy to find somebody who would talk
to me and who actually would care about me.
His struggles have certainly changed him, and for the better, he
said. Now, he describes himself as a brave person with no fear.
Im not really afraid of anything now. Now I look at
my life as an adventure, the student said. Three years
ago I was wondering if I had what it took to brave those adventures.
Now I think I know how to laugh about it when I fall and get up.
I used to kind of cry about it when I failed; I kind of dwelled
on it and felt miserable about it. Now I laugh about it and forget
One thing is for certain: Kang has left his mark at Walt Whitman.
Of 28 Whitman students who have applied to Harvard since 2007, Kang
is the first to be accepted.
Hes a remarkable young man. Hes had some serious
Many people twice his age would have difficulty
finding a way to remain focused and achieve goals that theyve
set for themselves, Harris said.
He wont be soon forgotten, Ill tell you that,