Homeless To Harvard

Growing up, Richard Jenkins (pictured), struggled. From 4th through 6th grade, his family lived in a homeless shelter, eventually moving to transitional housing until high school. Jenkins bounced around public high schools for two years, developing chronic, debilitating migraines that kept him out of school so often, he had to complete his freshman year online.

But despite his circumstances, Jenkins knew he was going to college. By spring, responses were trickling in. He was waitlisted by Penn State and didn’t get into Yale. But a video message from Harvard welcomed him to the class of 2022. “It was really humbling,” said the 18-year-old scholar from Philadelphia. “I’ve been asked to write letters to younger classmates, and speak at graduations. It’s weird to me because this is just who I am. But I’m glad that [my story] is making a difference.”

Jenkins mostly kept quiet about his home life, choosing instead to focus on his academics. He excelled in high school, eventually becoming class valedictorian. He liked to write — science fiction, mostly. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game became his favorite book.

“I definitively would like to highlight my mother — without her, a lot of things could not have happened. She made sure that we were always taken care of. Even when we were homeless, we weren’t out on the street,” he said. “My family is really supportive … and education was the most important thing.”

At Harvard he hopes to figure out his purpose and is interested in finding a mentor. He expects his time at Harvard to be the toughest years of his life, academically.

“I just want to focus on not falling through the cracks at Harvard,” Jenkins said. “I think that’s something that worries a lot of students, especially students of color — they get into these Ivy League schools and wonder, ‘OK, can I actually cut it there?’”

Jenkins hopes to combine his creativity and Harvard education to develop the first fully sentient artificial intelligence program to address bias in hiring.

“I hate how unfair the world is. There are so many people who are qualified for opportunities but don’t get them because their skin is not the right color or because of their background,” Jenkins said. “Having an entity that’s not on anyone’s side could be useful in solving these issues.”

— Jazelle Hunt

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