Star-spangled high achiever

Sheer grit and a family promise pushed a Boise senior from barely speaking English to MIT

broberts@idahostatesman.comApril 22, 2013 

Four years ago, when Willow Jarvis came to Boise from China, she lacked confidence in her ability to stake out a life for herself.

This spring, Jarvis, 18, will graduate from Borah High School with enough scholarship money to cover education and living expenses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she will go in the fall.

Her plan: to be a research scientist in alternative energy.

"I had this goal I wanted to accomplish," she said quietly.

In the 14 years she spent in China, Jarvis never imagined the life she is about to undertake.

She was born under the Chinese government's one-child policy, where officials try to limit the country's exploding population. Some family members were disappointed she was a girl in a society where boys are prized.

"I felt I was being ignored," she said.

Her mother and father scraped together enough money for her to go to school. She never thought college was a possibility in China.

"I would say it is very hard for a woman to go through and get educated, especially if their family isn't rich," she said.

Jarvis expected a life in China where "I would become a waitress or work in a restaurant, or when I get old enough, I marry someone and that is pretty much my life."

She knew she wanted more. One night, during a Chinese New Year celebration, she and a cousin were lamenting their second-class status as girls and how they hoped for a more fulfilling life.

"I just held my cousin's hand and said 'we are going to fight for this.' "

Her parents eventually divorced. Jarvis lived in China with her mother, Mae, who was determined to find a way to keep her in school.

"I didn't have money," said Mae, 44. "I spent almost seven years before buying any new clothes."

Mae studied acupuncture and massage in hopes of getting a better job. In 2006, she left China - where good jobs were difficult to get - for a job in massage therapy in a Saudi Arabian hospital, leaving her daughter in the care of an aunt.

"I tried my best to get (her) an education," Mae said.


In Saudi Arabia, Mae met Dan Jarvis, who'd come to the country to work as a helicopter mechanic after a disability forced him to stop work as a smoke-jumping pilot in McCall.

They fell in love. They married in 2007 and moved to Boise in 2008. He adopted Willow in 2010.

Willow was an uncertain 14-year-old when she started at the Boise School District's school for English-language learners. She was surrounded by people from countries scattered across the globe.

"I didn't get to speak Chinese with anyone. I was forced to speak English," she said.

She remembers taking her first English assessment: She didn't understand the test or the person who administered it.

But she'd made a promise to her cousin back in China to fight for a better life, and she intended to keep it.

She'd speak English with anyone who would listen: Friends, teachers, classmates.

"I was just being a beast," she said. "I knew English was important and whatever I wanted to do later in my life, I had to know English."


A normal stay in the district's English program is two years. Jarvis left after a semester - and signed up for accelerated ninth-grade English in junior high. It's tougher than regular English class.

"She doesn't dabble in anything," said Mark Westcott, her Advanced Placement chemistry teacher at Borah. "She goes full bore. She is scary good."

Accelerated English taxed Jarvis. She would carry a dictionary around with her. She sometimes took hours to read 20 pages of a novel.

"I had to read five words and look one up," she said.

The first semester, she didn't get better than a C on her papers. By the end of the year, she was one of the top students. That same tenacity guided her through the rest of junior high and high school, eventually taking her into the sciences.

A busy day of school, studying and extracurricular activities begins at 6 a.m. and often goes past midnight, said Dan Jarvis. "She won't go to bed until everything is done," he said.

And sometimes, he hears her humming "The Star Spangled Banner."


Last year she was accepted into the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science, a summer program sponsored by MIT. She was one of 80 chosen out of 1,750 applicants nationwide. MIT's program is meant to encourage more minority students to seek technical degrees.

She excelled in the course work, which included biochemistry, calculus 1 and physics.

When she applied to attend MIT, the school awarded her nearly a full-ride, four-year scholarship.

She also applied for the Gates Millennium Scholars program supported by Bill and Melinda Gates and learned last week that she had received it. It will virtually assure all her undergraduate and some post-graduate costs are taken care of.

In a letter of recommendation, Borah High career counselor Josh Ritchie wrote: "I mention Willow daily to students who have some excuse for why they are not doing well. I haven't met a student yet who wouldn't be successful if they put in the effort Willow does."

Jarvis' outlook is simple: "Try your best. You don't know if you are going to fail. If you try your best and end up failing, that's OK."

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

Willow Jarvis, with her straight A's, may be one of Borah High School's hardest-working seniors. But there is also time for fun. She leads the school's Latin club and plays the guzheng, a Chinese instrument similar to a zither.

Willow Jarvis is a quiet, unassuming Borah High School senior bound for MIT. Here she jokes with classmate Gideon Agbeko in her Advanced Placement literature class.

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