When Richard “Tre” Jenkins was a kid, he never imagined he’d attend an Ivy League school.
“It never occurred to me,” the 18 year old tells PEOPLE. “I was homeless for two years … we were hopping from different hotels and staying in homeless shelters.”
Jenkins, of Philadelphia, along with his mother, Quiana McLaughlin, and two brothers, bounced around for years before they finally got a home of their own when Jenkins was about 13. As a kid, Jenkins found comfort in his love of learning, and even drew the ire of bullies who criticized his smarts.
But it seems his bookworm ways have paid off. On March 28, Jenkins learned he’d been accepted to Harvard University — with a full ride.
“Tears started streaming down my face because I was so happy. I was actually able to make it happen,” the teenager says, noting that he got the news while in Paris on a school trip. “I was on the phone with my girlfriend and we had been up for hours because I was really nervous … I threw my phone across the room when I saw ‘Welcome’ on the email. There was a lot of shouting going on in the room. It was great.”
Jenkins says he applied to nearly a dozen schools and was accepted to most of them. Of the three Ivy League universities to which he applied, he was put on the wait list for the University of Pennsylvania and denied by Yale University.
Still, he says, Harvard was his first choice.
“[My mom] had a lot of faith in me, even when I didn’t,” Jenkins says, adding that his mother moved to North Carolina, while he lives with his aunt in Philadelphia. “She was really happy for me.”
Now, Jenkins says he couldn’t have gotten into his dream school without the help of Mighty Writers, a non-profit after-school program to help children improve their writing skills.
“It really helped me hone my writing skills and become more confident about them,” he tells PEOPLE. “I got better at writing essays and critiquing, and the essays are really what helped me get into Harvard.”
He attended the organization’s West Philly location four times a week during the 8th grade and volunteered with the program for the next two years.
As Jenkins prepares to graduate Girard College, a North Philly boarding school, he has a few words of encouragement for struggling young people.
“I’d tell them to stay focused,” he says. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Jenkins says he plans to study computer science.
According to Philly.com, Harvard pays full tuition for students from households earning less than $65,000 a year. His family has also set up a GoFundMe page to help cover his expenses throughout college.