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EMERGE Student To Be Honored as U.S. Presidential Scholar

This story was featured in the Houston Chronicle on May 27, 2016.

Liana Wang walks into Bellaire High School's College Center singing, under her breath, the opening number from the hit Broadway musical "Hamilton."

In some ways, it's the perfect theme music for Liana's story. In other ways, not at all.

When Liana graduates Sunday, she will be every bit as young, scrappy and hungry as the trendy Founding Father, but she will go into the world buoyed by the kind of support Hamilton never dreamed of.

She is part of the EMERGE college-readiness program, which works across the Houston Independent School District to find students with talent and potential from underserved communities and help prepare them for top-tier colleges and universities.

It worked for Liana. She was accepted at every school she applied to: Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, Williams, Duke and the University of Texas.

That's not all. In June, Liana will fly to Washington, D.C., as part of the U.S. Presidential Scholars program, one of the highest honors a high school senior can get.

She's going to meet the president.

"Comparatively, I've had a very privileged life," says Liana, who has a quick and easy smile. "My parents are from China, and they gave up a lot of things for us."

Now that she's gotten into college, her mother is suddenly a little concerned. "My mom says, 'Don't drop out. Now you have to make it,' " Liana says.

For the record, Liana picked Yale, after spending a week there. Among other things, she likes the system of residential colleges, and she hopes she'll get to live in the one with the cute dog - "a Samoyed!" - or maybe the one with the best pizza.

Her future career is a little up in the air. After reading an especially moving story on the Humans of New York website recently, she toyed for a few hours with the idea of becoming a pediatric oncologist.

But most of the time, she sees her future in international relations, perhaps as a diplomat. (Despite being part of the national champion Bellaire Economic Challenge team and loving AP Biology and her higher-level math class, she says she's not much of a STEM student.)

Liana is, in fact, diplomatic. Of her little sister Sarah, who will be in seventh grade at St. John's School next year, she says: "She is doing all the things I wish I could do. She's a really good dancer, and I have no coordination. She's a really nice person overall."

Liana is no overnight sensation.

Rachael Faith, the college counselor for Bellaire, says EMERGE students start meeting with her in ninth grade. Every student is walked through what is often a stressful and confusing process: how to handle standardized testing, how to choose schools, how to write application essays.

Final drafts of those essays (a student may have to submit as many as 10) are ready by Aug. 1 before senior year, says Naureen Ali, the academics program manager for EMERGE. The students even take trips to visit campuses.

Bellaire's principal, Michael McDonough, says this is the third group of students to go through the full-length program.

"It's a great structure," he says. "The more resources we put in front of the kids, the more options they have."

Bellaire's contingent of 25 students is the largest in HISD, Ali says. "The kids are so eager. They look out for each other."

Sometimes, McDonough says, students just show up and talk their way into the program.

"It's competitive but, in the end, that's decent and healthy-ish," Liana says. "Juniors come and ask advice, and I say this is not the end of the road. That's not a healthy way to think of it."

Before Yale, Liana will make that special trip to D.C.

"I've always wanted to meet the president," she says.

And she'll take another trip - to China to visit her grandparents, a couple of hours outside Shanghai. "They have fantastic bubble tea," she says.

Asked if she has any advice for high school juniors, Liana demurs.

"By junior year, the future is already determined," says Liana, who will be the first person in her family to go to college. "I would rather direct my advice to ninth-graders. I'd tell them not to focus on getting into college but on who you are as a person. College is a side effect. Find ways to connect to other people because only good things can come of that."

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