For many, heading off to college means leaving home — but for one student, it means finding a home.
Johnathan Phillips, a senior at McKinney North High School in Texas who has struggled with homelessness for most of his life, will become a Penn freshman in the fall of 2016.
Phillips has been homeless on and off for months at a time since he was about seven years old. He has lived with friends, in a homeless shelter and sometimes for a few days on the streets. His mother, Deanna Phillips, was unable to work because of an illness and was also undergoing a custody battle for Phillips’ half-sister — some of the circumstances that financially drained their family.
“We take care of each other. It’s just been kind of our thing,” Phillips said.
QuestBridge National College Match is a college and scholarship process that supports academically gifted students with a financial disadvantage to acquire full scholarships to universities such as Penn and Yale University. Tammi Saffell, an advisor at McKinney Education Foundation — a nonprofit associated with high schools in the district — assisted Phillips to begin his college search during his junior year.
On Dec. 1, 2015, Phillips received the news that he had won a full scholarship to attend Penn.
“My mom’s reaction was very much excited and happy. I was just relieved,” Phillips said.
In 2015, Penn admitted about 50 other QuestBridge winners.
Saffell said that Phillips is one of the most humble students she has ever worked with and that his teachers did not know about his hardships until the media began writing about them.
“He doesn’t see himself as disadvantaged,” Saffell explained. “He really sees himself as advantaged. He sees the good in every situation. He’s an awesome kid.”
At Penn, Phillips wants to study political science and chemistry. He hopes to design the very first commercial hydrogen engine. However, Saffell envisions him as a writer as well.
“He is an incredible writer,” Saffell explained. “I won’t be surprised if he writes a book or becomes a journalist.”
Kevin McPherson, Phillips’ 11th grade English teacher and his academic coach, also attested to his wisdom.
“Johnathan is mature beyond his years — the way he conducts himself, the way he talks to adults, his world views are more sophisticated than most high school students,” McPherson said.
McPherson pointed to the fact that Phillips’ father died before he was born. Growing up, his uncle served as a father figure for Phillips until he also passed away last year. Through it all, Phillips remained strong.
“Everything that he has, he has earned. No one deserves this [scholarship] more than Johnathan,” McPherson said. “He doesn’t allow his past to become his excuse.”
Currently, Phillips lives with his family in a rented apartment. However, they have trouble keeping up with rent payments. Penn will not only offer him an education, but also a stable place to live. People from McKinney Independent School District are paying for Phillips’ and his mother’s airfare, hotel, meals and spending money to attend Penn’s Quaker Days in April. Southwest Airlines provided the pair with four free round-trip tickets to Philadelphia after Phillips’ story was featured in the local news.
Saffell said that Phillips is a cautious young man because of the many disappointments he has experienced in his life. She added that both Phillips’ obstacles and his passion for learning are sources of inspiration for others.
“Other students could see that there is a way, if they really wanted [something] and really worked at it. [Johnathan] has such a strong desire to learn new things. I know that’s going to take him really far,” Saffell said.
Phillips encourages everyone to fight for their dreams.
“Anything you want to achieve is not just going to come to you,” he said. “You have to go out and get it.”
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