Product of public housing follows his dream, to Yale


POSTED: Sunday, May 31, 2009

Growing up at Kuhio Park Terrace, the public housing project in Kalihi, Timothy Le learned to be independent and solve his problems, not to make a fuss.

“;You adapt to the environment,”; said Le, a senior at Farrington High School who was pushed around as a child, mocked for his clothes and his Vietnamese ethnicity. “;Instead of complaining, you deal with it.”;

The slim, thoughtful boy went on to earn a 3.95 grade point average and awards in science, physics and community leadership. Now, at 17, he is headed to Yale University on a full-ride scholarship, covering estimated expenses of $55,352 a year.

He brought his trademark can-do spirit to his search for a college education. Le focused on only those heavily endowed universities, like Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Dartmouth, that have recently decided to waive tuition for low-income families. He applied to 12 such schools, plus the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“;It's perfect timing, and I'm so grateful that they do have these kinds of financial-aid initiatives so that students like me can have the opportunity to attend these top institutions,”; he said.

At Yale University, families earning less than $60,000 annually aren't expected to contribute anything toward the cost of their child's education, if the student is lucky enough to get accepted. For those making $60,000 to $120,000 the cost is typically 1 percent to 10 percent of family income. Just 7.5 percent of applicants to Yale were accepted this year.

Le thinks his life story helped him stand out. He never knew his father. His mother, who learned English at community college, “;told me early that I had to work really hard.”; She now works as an interpreter at the Kalihi Palama Health Center. His older brother and role model, who worked during high school to support the family, died in 2007 after a seizure.

Le plans to study biomedical engineering at Yale.

“;If I could tell students one thing,”; he said, “;it would be this: Don't let your dreams be just dreams.”;

He knows he's in for a change in temperature this winter in New Haven, Conn. But he's adaptable. At his housing project, residents had to do without hot water for months, a problem that was fixed only recently.

“;My mom and nephew would boil water,”; Li said. “;I would just take a cold shower. It feels almost energizing.”;