New Hampshire teen from Africa lands scholarship to Harvard

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Concord High School senior Esther Elonga’s days are long.

Up at 6 a.m., the New American student originally from the Congo and Uganda bounces between her favorite math and science classes and uses her free blocks to start her homework. After school, she heads to her job at The Home Depot until 9 p.m., and then it’s back home to finish her homework, sometimes studying until midnight.

Elonga’s hard work paid off when she recently found out that she was accepted to Harvard University.

“I looked at the congratulations letter, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m going to Harvard,’ ” she said. “I had to tell myself that three times, just to make sure I was right.”

Three days later, she got more good news — a notice that the university would be paying her tuition in full.

“It felt so good,” she said. “I know I have to go to this great school and work hard to succeed.”

It took Elonga’s family 13 years to emigrate from Uganda to the United States. Originally from the Congo, the family fled its war-torn home country when Elonga was just 3 years old and settled in neighboring Uganda as refugees.

Months earlier, as she began to write her college essay, Elonga reflected on the long journey. She wrote about her last name, which means “victory” in her native language, Lingala.

“How my life has been victorious,” Elonga explained. “Even through all that, we managed to come to the United States, and that was victory.”

Elonga has only snippets of memory from life in the mountainous region of the Congo, living near a volcano and picking beans in her grandmother’s garden.

When the family fled to Uganda, they thought they would be moving to the United States within six months. It ended up being 13 years before they made the journey.

Elonga’s parents chose to forgo the international aid that comes with living in a refugee camp by settling in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, and paying their own way instead. Their main motivation was that there were better schools in the capital, and they wanted Esther and her sisters to get a good education.

Her parents found scholarships to help put her through school in Uganda.

“They always supported me and everything,” she said.

A quick learner, Elonga’s favorite subjects were science and math; numbers make the most sense to her, she said. She plans to study medicine and wants to become an anesthesiologist.

When she was 16 and in her senior year of secondary school in Uganda, her family got the news that they had finally been approved to come to the United States. At the last minute, they found out their final destination was New Hampshire.

“We used to hear about New York and California,” Elonga said. “We were like, ‘What’s New Hampshire?’ ”

She started at Concord High in February as a sophomore. Though she initially felt nervous about starting school in a new country and her English-speaking abilities, Elonga adapted quickly.

She joined the school’s “Be the Change” multicultural club and made friends with other New American students who were dealing with the same situation.

“It made me feel more secure — I’ll be okay,” she said.

However, Elonga is well-acquainted with stepping outside her comfort zone. As she practiced speaking English, she volunteered to do public speaking events with other “Be the Change” Club students.

She also tried out for the school’s varsity cross country running team with four other girls on a bit of a whim.

“I didn’t know what cross country was,” she laughed. She was relieved to find out it involved running.

Concord High cross country coach Ally Davis said Elonga set goals and worked hard to reach them. At first, that goal was simply to get through a 5K race without having to walk at the end.

“She quickly surpassed that,” Davis said, adding that Elonga improved her race time by six minutes over a couple of years.

Davis said Elonga is “one of the most resilient, hardworking people” she knows.

“She comes in every day, she tried her best, she always wanted to run,” Davis said. “She’s a steady, strong runner.”

One day, Davis was driving through the Heights on her way to practice when she saw Elonga, who lives in the area, running on her way to the field because she didn’t have a ride that day.

“She was running to cross country practice to run more,” Davis said. “She didn’t want to miss practice. That’s so her.”

Elonga’s Concord High classmate Brinkley Brown has known her since she joined the school. A fellow cross country teammate and “Be the Change” member, Brown is accomplished in her own right: she was also accepted to Harvard and is deciding between that university and other schools right now.

Brown said the knowledge that Elonga will be studying in Cambridge, Mass., next year is an added incentive.

“Definitely a selling point is going to school with Esther,” Brown said. “She’s so incredibly smart, she’s so kind, so caring. She’s a leader.”

Recently, Elonga and Brown led a youth leadership workshop on time management, presenting other students with a packed schedule that included a few hours of class, homework, a birthday party, work and going to church.

“It was her actual schedule, which amazed people how she was able to balance that,” Brown said. “She doesn’t see it as abnormally busy.”

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