When he walked across campus at Pasadena City College for the first time, Ryan Liu never imagined that only two years later he would attend an Ivy League college and receive a personal letter from the President of the United States.
Liu, who is a first-generation college student, graduated summa cum laude in 2015 and earned an Associates Degree in Social and Behavioral Science at PCC. He was the Pasadena City College Class of 2015 valedictorian and used his address to urge President Barack Obama to continue to commit himself to the promise of strengthening community colleges.
Liu also sent a letter to the White House asking for further steps to make college more accessible to financially less secure students. Considering the tens of thousands of letters and emails the White House receives daily, according to the New York Times, Liu did not expect a reply.
In early January Liu opened the mailbox and held a letter from the White House, in response to his own, in his hands.
“I was surprised, as it was completely unexpected,” Liu said. “It was a really inspiring note to receive, because as I was questioning whether the path I’m on is the correct route. This letter reminded me that the work I’m doing is hopefully for a better purpose beyond just me, as I’m aiming to use the education I’m receiving to build a career dedicated towards helping other people.”
Not only did Liu receive a letter from President Obama for his passionate address and commitment to better the life of others, he also was the first PCC student since 2007 to receive the most prestigious scholarship available to community college students—the Jack Kent Cooke transfer scholarship.
The scholarship is awarded to highly gifted, low-income community college students and provides up to $40,000 annually for two to three years, enabling them to transfer to a four-year baccalaureate institution, according to the Foundation’s website,
During his last week of classes at PCC, Liu was called in to the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid and received the news that he had been awarded the scholarship. Before receiving the scholarship Liu didn’t know if he would be able to afford going to college.
“It gives me the opportunity to finish my education without financial debt and without being a financial burden to my parents,” Liu said
While at PCC Liu was active in the Alpha Gamma Sigma Honor Society and the Honors Scholar Program and an elective member of the Associated Students Board.
Liu’s former English professor Dr. Tooktook Thongthiraj, who supported him not only in class, but also when it came to applying for scholarships, remembers him fondly.
“I have been teaching English for 21 years. Without a doubt, Ryan Liu is my #1 student of all time,” Thongthiraj wrote in an email. “Besides being intellectually brilliant, he is creative and socially aware. Overall, he represents the quintessential student.”
Besides praising his academic successes, she also salutes his “noble character.”
“Ryan’s academic achievements would be meaningless if not for his extraordinary humility and compassion,” Thongthiraj said. “His classmates were in awe of him, but they always enjoyed working with him because he is warm-hearted, easy-going, respectful, humorous, and creative.”
Thongthiraj assisted Liu with writing his personal statement for his university application, with letters of recommendation, and advised him how best to choose the university he would transfer to.
“Of course, I would have loved for Ryan to be a Bruin like myself, but who could pass up a chance to study at Yale University?,” Thongthiraj said.
Liu accepted the offer to go to Yale and is now a junior at Yale’s Morse College, where he studies political science. Considering that Yale only accepted 24 transfer students that year, and hardly any from community colleges, it is clear how exceptional Liu’s achievement is.
“I was definitely surprised that I was accepted,” Liu said, “But I was also excited for the opportunity to study at Yale, and grateful for all those mentors, professors, family members, friends and classmates who’ve helped me come this far.”
“Above all, I felt that I had a responsibility to use this opportunity to gain new insight on how to help other people gain access to socioeconomic mobility, so that these opportunities for a better life aren’t as exclusive as they currently are.”
When asked about the differences in the student population between Yale and PCC, Liu saw mainly similarities.
“I do pretty well with getting along with students from different backgrounds,” Liu said. “I find that students have the same motivations. The same drive that I saw at PCC I also see here.”
Liu plans to get a joint JD/MBA to practice corporate law and then to return to California to work in public interest law “
“Take all opportunities offered by PCC like the pathways and honors program,” Liu said. “Work with faculty and have some goal or plan. A plan can always change but is definitely helpful when you’re at PCC.”