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Help raise two brothers, head the investing club, summer at Oxford: How one student went from poverty to an elite college

Min Zhong, 19, of Arlington, Va., poses for a photo with her classmate Brandi Moore, 18, during Washington-Lee High School’s commencement ceremony at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 18, 2015. Zhong will be attending Swarthmore College in the fall. (Photo by Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post)

Min Zhong, 19, arrived in the U.S. as a 9-year-old who spoke little English. Her parents struggled to make ends meet. And while her classmates attended after-school activities, Zhong grew up caring for two younger brothers while her parents put in long hours at work. She excelled in school nonetheless.

By eighth grade, Zhong’s academic promise was recognized when she was accepted as a Jack Kent Cooke Young Scholar, a wrap-around program that provides a host of assistance, including scholarships to private schools, counseling and opportunities for summer enrichment.

Last month, Zhong was selected to receive the foundation’s college scholarship, an award that will allow her to attend Swarthmore in Pennsylvania for free. Nationwide, the foundation, named for the late owner of the Washington Redskins, chose 94 students for its scholarships, which will pay up to $40,000 a year in tuition. Some, like Zhong, have been long-time beneficiaries of the foundation.

Without the foundation’s help, she said, she can’t imagine what life would be like for her. “They make me who I am today,” she said.

Harold Levy, head of the foundation and the former chancellor of New York City’s public schools, said the foundation aims to fill in the cracks that high-achieving students from low-income families tend to fall through. The foundation’s studies have shown that schools have done a poor job of fostering growth for gifted students who come from poor households.

“When I was New York City schools chancellor in 2000, I thought if you’re really smart and really poor, you can write your own ticket,” he said. “What I’ve learned from the literature is that’s not true at all. Couldn’t be more wrong.”

[Gifted students — especially those who are low-income — aren’t getting the focus they need]

So the foundation tries to provide all the amenities offered to affluent children. That includes summer enrichment abroad, stipends for unpaid internships and tutoring. Once in college, scholarship recipients get less counseling support, but form their own networks. About 96 percent of scholarship recipients graduate college in six years, according to the foundation.

Zhong spent her summers studying investment and finance at Choate Rosemary Hall, an elite boarding school in Connecticut, and at Oxford University. This summer, with the help of a stipend from the foundation, she is interning at the Washington Area Community Investment Fund, an organization that offers loans to under-served communities.

At Arlington’s Washington-Lee High School, where she earned a 3.9 GPA, she was president of the Investing Club and a member of the debate team. At Swarthmore, she plans to continue her studies in economics and investing.

Her ultimate goal? Reform the finance industry to better serve the poor.

“There needs to be some sort of moral shift” in the industry, she said. “You have to go school and you have to have knowledge and have some leverage to change the world.”

Here are the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholarship recipients from the D.C. area and where they are slated to attend college:

The District
Lidwina Bell, National Cathedral School: Brown University.

Hanna Berhane, Wheaton High School in Rockville: Princeton University.

Ravyn Malatesta, Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring: Lewis and Clark College.

Samira Okudo, Thomas Sprigg Wootton High School in Gaithersburg: MIT.

Andreas Robertson, Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring: Georgia Tech.

Roberto Claure, Washington-Lee High School in Arlington: University of Miami.

Katherine Diaz, Washington-Lee High School in Arlington: Carnegie Mellon University.

Tho Tran, Annandale High School in Annandale, MIT.

Enxin Wan, Flint Hill School in Herndon: Harvard University.

Min Zhong, Washington-Lee High School in Arlington: Swarthmore College.