Long Island High School Valedictorian Accepted to All 8 Ivy League Colleges Credits Family for Success: 'They Told Me to Dream Big'
"I was so shocked, and it is still very surreal," the Elmont Memorial High School valedictorian with a 101.64 GPA, tells PEOPLE
Long Island high school student Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna learned she was accepted to all eight Ivy League schools she applied to in the midst of a varsity badminton game.
Uwamanzu-Nna was on a break from playing when she used her phone to check online at 5 p.m. on March 31, the exact time the Ivies were set to notify applicants of their decisions.
Going in alphabetical order, she saw that Brown, Columbia, Cornell and Dartmouth had said yes.
When Uwamanzu-Nna got to Harvard, “she ran out of the gym screaming, ‘Oh my God, I got into Harvard’ and she was crying and we were all crying,” says one of her best friends and badminton teammate Alanis Smith, 18.
The other team stopped the game to congratulate her.
“I was so shocked, and it is still very surreal,” Uwamanzu-Nna, the Elmont Memorial High School valedictorian with a 101.64 GPA, tells PEOPLE.
She was also accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, New York University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
“I owe it to my family for encouraging me,” the teen says, “and helping me realize I am limitless and have so many opportunities. They told me to dream big. They always wanted me to find my full potential.”
While Uwamanzu-Nna doesn’t know which school she’ll attend, she knows her course of study: A dual major of sustainable development and biochemistry.
“My parents just want me to go somewhere that makes me happy,” she says. She has plans to visit as many schools as possible before the May 1 final decision date.
Last year, another Elmont senior, Harold Ekeh, was accepted to all eight Ivies. He selected Yale.
Uwamanzu-Nna, of Elmont, N.Y., is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants who instilled in her the value of education.
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“Where I grew up in Africa, we were told that with education you can achieve your dreams, even if you don’t have money,” says her father, Tobias, who holds the advanced degree of Doctor of Physical Therapy and works for the New York City school system.
Tobias and his wife, Basillia, came to the U.S. in 1994. Their first-born, Johnson, 18, now a freshman at Cornell, has provided lifelong motivation for Augusta, says Tobias.
“She always wanted to compete with him,” Tobias says, “do what he was doing, in terms of academics.”
And academics didn’t always come easy, Augusta says, admitting she’s sometimes struggled with schoolwork.
“Yes, I am not perfect. I don’t want to share my lowest grade because it is kind of embarrassing,” she says, noting biology is a favorite subject, while physics, not so much.
Cement, however, is a keen interest.
Uwamanzu-Nna was among 40 U.S. teenagers this year who was named a finalist in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search for figuring out how to create a new and stronger cement seal for off-shore drilling oil wells by adding a clay ingredient.
She was motivated by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, because “the spill was caused by an inadequate cement seal, she says.
But Uwamanzu-Nna also became interested in cement at the end of ninth grade because it was something different than the usual high school science research oftentimes focused on biomedical sciences.
“I decided to take a more unconventional route that no one around me was pursuing,” she says.
Belief in herself is a big key to Uwamanzu-Nna’s success. After doing cement experiments in her basement, the teen decided she wanted to work in the lab of a top cement researcher at Columbia University. So she emailed the researcher, Shiho Kawashima, and got a no.
But Uwamanzu-Nna did not take no for an answer, recalls her high school science research teacher, Michelle Flannory. The determined high school student continued to email the professor about her ongoing work in cement.
Last summer, Uwamanzu-Nna was accepted in the lab. “I think that not taking no for an answer has served her well,” Flannory says. “Now Dr. Kawashima says to her, ‘You have to come back to me to do your PhD.'”
Proud dad Tobias credits this dogged determination to Augusta’s mom.
“My wife told her nothing comes easy,” he says, “and I told them my story, coming from Africa nothing was easy, but you can’t take no for an answer, and there is a reward in hard work.”
Yet it’s not all about academics for Uwamanzu-Nna. She also created a dance group that has raised about $2,000 to benefit people in Nigeria, she mentors other students and she is very active in the Future Business Leaders of America organization.
She also started a study group called “Winning Team” last year to deal with the stress of advanced placement classes, and loves to cook for her whole family.
“Now everyone is getting a peek at how amazing my best friend is,” says Smith. “And I’m so happy for her, so happy she is getting the recognition she deserves.”