“It wasn’t a straightforward path to get where I am now,” says the 2016 graduate of Yosemite High School. Leaf will enter Stanford University as a junior this year, on full scholarship. He was kind enough to respond to our request for an interview by writing down his thoughts.
“I had to make a lot of sacrifices and find motivation within myself, and for that reason I can’t take my situation for granted.”
Once high school was over, Leaf wanted to attend a community college in order to transfer to a university. He just wasn’t sure how that would be accomplished.
“The thought seemed vague and almost unattainable at first, because nobody in my family had a college education and I was the only one of my siblings to graduate from high school,” he recounts. “It meant that I had to figure out the steps on my own and blaze my own trail. It also meant that I would be the only example for my younger brother that an education was even a valid goal.”
Leaving Oakhurst to spend a summer in Paris, Leaf says he formulated plans and refined his academic objectives.
“I was set on transferring to a school that would offer the opportunity to explore my literary interests to their depths, and to contribute to academia in a way that would prepare me to eventually pursue a career in letters.” Meaning, he plans to live a writer’s life and, in fact, has already written two novels and is completing a third.
The young student was invited to live at his uncle’s house in the Bay Area, and to attend one of the nearby community colleges, in preparation for a transfer to a university. Leaf enrolled at City College of San Francisco and took on a heavy course load of general transfer requirements.
“Come spring semester, I had the privilege of participating in the city college’s cross-enrollment program with UC Berkeley,” he explains. “I used this opportunity to take upper-division literature courses in French and Spanish, the languages I had become fluent in amid my time spent at YHS, and whose literature had come to be my main academic interest.”
Quick to credit others who have helped him, Wyatt is immensely appreciative of certain instructors — including some at Yosemite High School — for having prepped him to follow this dream.
“Thinking back to my high school years, I want to thank Señor Browning for exposing me to the Spanish language, which has become integral to my academic pursuits. Browning is effectively responsible for my fluency in the language, as I voraciously studied and absorbed it through his lectures, conversations and readings — both in class, as well as the books he handed me to read on the side. He has granted me a gift that will stay with me forever.”
Leaf is also grateful to Mr. Skeahan, who teaches English and Theory of Knowledge at YHS, for “exposing me to great literature and holding me to a high standard of writing and intellectual honesty.” He thanks Ms. Hardison for inspiring him with “her passionate flair for history, for broadening my perspective, and for being a supportive figure when I had so few in my life.”
Back in the Bay Area, Wyatt says became “sort of hybrid student, effectuating serpentine commutes on a daily basis, spending part of my time at the city college, part of my time at Berkeley, part of my time working at a restaurant on Russian Hill, and then retreating back to my uncle’s house in the southern suburbs of the city.”
For the time he spent in their home, Leaf says he is indebted to his Aunt Tina and Uncle John for “believing in me, supporting me, and recognizing my potential from the onset.” He says they offered the support he needed to realize his dreams.
“He independently decided he was going to get serious in an all-or-nothing mindset about education and gaining knowledge,” Alice says, noting that her son has always been driven, focused, strong-willed and passionate about his favorite pursuits.
“When he was six, it was Harry Potter and wizardry. When he was eight, it was skateboarding. When he was thirteen, he was writing raps.”
Now, Alice says he is indelibly committed to doing his personal best.
“Last year at San Francisco City College, he maintained a full time class load and a 4.0 grade point average, and worked sixteen hours a week. That’s focus and drive.”
After a year of school in the Bay Area, Wyatt returned to Paris in the summer, where he took a French literature class at the prestigious university La Sorbonne. Back in California, he moved to an affordable student residence in Berkeley with the money he’d saved, and continued a rigorous academic program punctuated with surveys and seminars in French and Spanish at UC Berkeley.
Leaf submitted his University of California application in the fall of 2017 and an application to Stanford in the winter, and waited for results. By the end of April, he’d been admitted to UC Berkeley, UC Los Angeles and UC San Diego with full-ride scholarships. Looking forward to Berkeley, where his passion for literature had flourished, Leaf was left reeling when he learned Stanford had answered with a resounding “yes.”
“Being accepted at Stanford hit me really hard,” Wyatt says, looking back. “It felt like the culmination of seeing all my efforts pay off. Coming from a background where even my high school graduation was a notable achievement, it was an almost overwhelming sensation to consider how far I had come.”
With so many reasons to feel good about the road he’s taken, he’s most proud of the lasting impression his efforts leave for those he loves.
“I had come up with a blueprint and a pathway to demonstrate to my younger brother that we are capable of great things, and that not even an uneducated background can hold us back from our intellectual ambitions.”
Next month, Leaf will enter Stanford University as a junior, majoring in French and Spanish Literature.
“I feel honored, gratified, and excited to push myself even further. I don’t see Stanford as being the peak of my trajectory, but rather as a foundation from which I can continue to flourish.
“I’ve navigated a complex path over the course of my life. Achievements such as my entry to Stanford would have been, at certain points, utterly contradictory to my reputation. I was never the kid who fit in. I was ostracized, a nuisance, a borderline delinquent.
“I had to leave Wasuma in the seventh grade, as a result of getting into fights, not doing my work, and an inability to get along with my instructors or integrate in any way. My destination was more likely to be juvy, prison or the streets. I went to Fresno Flats, the local community day-school, where I faced even more issues. The following year, on an independent study program, I failed to graduate from the eighth grade and was socially promoted to high school. It was at this point that I started picking up the pieces of my fragmented life and that I discovered my passion — literature.”
Leaf hopes his story might reach other youth who are facing a turbulent moment in their lives.
“Perhaps the kids at Fresno Flats right now,” he says, remembering his own challenges. “Life can shift in an instant. Where you are at one point in your life is often not an indicator of your full capacity, and sometimes trials, failures and losses are an indirect form of progress. My struggles were instrumental in catalyzing my thirst for knowledge and have made me who I am today.”
Fittingly, Leaf ends his missive with a quote attributed to seventeenth-century French dramatist Pierre Corneille.
“À vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire.”—”To conquer without risk is to triumph without glory.”