California Teen Goes From Compton to Harvard University

Elijah Devaughn Jr., 18, pictured in this undated family photo, was accepted into Harvard University. (Courtesy Elijah Devaughn Jr.)

When Elijah Devaughn Jr. found out he was accepted into Harvard University’s class of 2021, he said it was “one of the best moments” of his life.

His acceptance proved that “hard work pays off,” Devaughn, 18, told ABC News. “You know, that the struggle isn’t for nothing.”

Devaughn grew up in a single-parent household in Compton, California, a city that has been plagued by gun violence and gang activity for decades.

“I remember the nights with the gun shots,” Devaughn said of his childhood. “My mom running in my room saying, ‘E.J. we need to lay on the floor.’”

He recalled, “I’m sitting there, laying on the floor, looking into my mother’s eyes and it’s just us.”

Devaughn’s father, Elijah Devaughn, was incarcerated when Devaughn was a baby. He would go on to serve 13 years in prison, missing much of his son’s childhood.

“I remember in kindergarten … I was asked, ‘Where’s your dad?’ and I used to say, ‘He’s in Hawaii on a business trip,’” Devaughn said. “And I said that for four years, five years.”

Devaughn’s mother, Sherree Lewis Devaughn, took him to visit his dad in prison nearly every other weekend. She recalled using those visits as teachable moments for her son.

“I would always tell him about cause and effect,” she said. “[Devaughn’s father] made the wrong choice. When you make the wrong choice, you’ll have consequences that you have to deal with.”

Devaughn points to watching the struggles of his dad, who is now back at home and reunited with his family, as a source of inspiration.

“When I pray to God at night I say, ‘I don’t thank you for placing my my dad in jail, but I thank you for the life you’ve given me, even if that’s a part of it,’” he said. “Because it ignites that fire, you know? It pushes you to wanna achieve more, wanna do more.”

Devaughn did achieve more, attending Chadwick School, a private school in Los Angeles County, on a scholarship. He said he struggled to fit in at first, but is now one of the most active students on the school campus.

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SOURCE: ABC News, Sharde Miller