I delivered this speech at my high school four years after I graduated. I share my journey from growing up in a poor & struggling single parent household to getting a full scholarship to Yale University.
Who the hell is this Asian guy?
I would like to thank Mr. Etheridge for inviting me to come speak to you today.
When I was sitting in the same seats you are today, eating the same cafeteria food, and taking the same classes, I remember what it was like to have a speaker come in to talk. It was a break from class, but I didn’t listen much because these guest speakers, some of them graduates and others were not, didn’t quite know my story, they didn’t relate to the struggles I had, they didn’t have the same goals, and, in short, they weren’t me.
So I know that you’re thinking the same right about me right now. Who is this Asian guy, in his preppy Yale clothes? What does he know about my life?
I am not you, but I know your stories and your struggles. In fact many of you probably have it better than I did in high school. Today I’m not going to tell you that you have to go to college or that you have to take the path I did. My goal is to get you to think about where you want to take your life and to see that despite your circumstances, you can get there.
When Mr. Etheridge introduced me, he told you I am at Yale and that I graduated from here in 2011, but he didn’t tell you my whole story, because I asked him if I could do that.
I lived all my life, right here, in Clayton County raised by my mother. My mother is single; she is disabled; and she didn’t even finish 3rd grade. We survived on food stamps and welfare every month; every night in high school I would wonder if my mom, little brother, and I would have enough food to last us for that month. I would wake up to the same gunshots you probably wake up to, and sometimes when I woke up and turned on the light, nothing came on. Some days I would come to school without a shower, cold, and hungry.
Growing up poor, in single parent households, witnessing gang violence, observing teenage pregnancy, seeing drug-busts, going to an unaccredited school, I get it. I’ve been there.
I see I have your attention now.
What even Poverty Can’t Take Away
You weren’t born rich, you weren’t born into the greatest circumstances, but you don’t have to allow your circumstances to define you. Many people ask me what made me different from everyone else who came up from Clayton County or in similar circumstances. I tell them it was because I had a purpose for waking up every morning.
When I was 13, I bought myself a poster of Harvard University to hang on my wall. Each time my family moved, I took my poster with me. The poster was the last thing I saw before I went to bed, the first thing I saw in the morning, and what I dreamt about at night.
In high school, when I woke up, I would look at the poster and ask myself two questions:
- What type of life do I want for myself?
- Are the things I am going to do today going to get me closer to the life I want? If not why am I doing them?
Each morning I would ask myself these two questions even if I woke up with no electricity.
The first question reminded me of what I wanted: to graduate at the top of my class, to attend Harvard, and to give my family a better life than they had ever known.
The second question, equally important, allowed me to always be moving towards my goal. It also helped me stay out of trouble and making decisions that would have gotten me away from the life I wanted.
When you have a drive in you to go after what you want, it is amazing what you’ll be motivated to do or not to do. Even poverty cannot away your decision to wake up and decide what you want to do with your day.
Poverty to Yale
When I made up my mind that I wanted to be the first person in our community to go to Harvard, I made up my mind that I needed to do everything it took even if I didn’t know how at the time.
The first was to improve my SAT score; the second was to write the best admissions essays I could; and the last was to get enough scholarship money to make it happen.
During my junior year I found this website called College Confidential where students who wanted to go to the top schools and their parents would meet and talk. I read about students with perfect 2400s, perfect AP scores, and Junior Olympic gold medals; you name it, they existed. But instead of being intimidated I wanted to learn from them.
I started messaging these people asking them how they prepared for the SAT. I found many of them took prep courses but my family couldn’t afford the $3000 – $4000 a month, so I asked if I could see the curriculum. When I got hold of one, I started taking it apart. I figured out what books they used to prepare and how they were teaching. I reverse engineered what those students were learning and applied to it myself. It wasn’t perfect but spending about 4 hours on the weekdays and 8 on the weekends for about 5 months increased my score from 1800 to 2200. It was inefficient, but I did what I could, with what I had, from where I was.
For my essays, I started getting feedback from Mr. Etheridge as well as students who were at Yale and Harvard. During my junior summer I realized that a Yale email for example was firstname.lastname@example.org and that Yale had a student newspaper, the Yale Daily News. I read the front page articles and each time I ran across a name: say Josh Penny, I would figure his name is actually Joshua Penny and email him at Joshua.Penny@yale.edu to ask if he would give me feedback on my essay. I sent out so many emails that even if 90% of people didn’t take the time to reply back, I still had 10% of people to work with. And I got some great feedback. One girl from Harvard told me an essay I had spent about a week on was crap. I ended up trashing it and eventually writing the one that got me into Yale.
Lastly for my scholarships, I had no clue what I was doing. Our counselors cared about me, but they had no clue what to do about scholarships since they were so busy dealing with people who might dropout. So I decided to just apply for every single scholarship I could find and see what happened. I even applied for one called “Women in Technology”. Sadly they rejected me. In fact 180 others rejected me too; I saw each rejection as some universal force asking me: “how badly do you want this?” so I kept applying until 30something foundations said to me, “Davis you are worth funding”. I still keep a wall of rejection for some of the scholarships that rejected me back home.
Eventually, in March of 2011, I was accepted to Yale and Harvard, choosing Yale.
So this is my story of coming from where you’re siting now to standing here. At the beginning I told you my goal is not to convince you that Yale or college is for you, though I think it is for most people; my challenge to you is to ask you to think about
- What type of life do you want for yourself?
And after you define that,
- Are the things you’re planning to do today going to get you closer to that life? If not why are you doing them?
When you have those two questions answered you stop making excuses for yourself, you start working towards your goals, and nothing can stand in your way.