9 Family Connection: Olympia H.S. student picks Harvard over 9 others

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ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - Tianhao “Tony” Wu, a recent Olympia High School graduate and Orange County Public Schools’ Super Scholar headed to Harvard, considers his father a key inspiration in his life.

Wu’s dad grew up in extreme poverty in rural China.

“His family always wanted him to get out of that poverty, and so they sent him to school,” Wu explained. “They sacrificed a lot. He sacrificed a lot too.”

Hear more of Tony's incredible story and about others like him, on central Florida’s Super Scholars special, Wednesday, June 18, on WFTV Channel 9 at 8:30 p.m.

His father ultimately tested into one of China’s top colleges and he was later accepted into a graduate program in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.

“His story has just been one that shows how hard work can really get you places in life,” Wu said. “Obviously I have a lot more luxuries than he ever did thanks to all his hard work, so I just try to make him proud.”

Wu’s family moved from Pittsburgh to Maine before relocating here to Central Florida for his middle and high school years.

Those are the years Wu’s academic talents really started to shine, but even he admits his success in school wasn’t always accepted as a certainty.

“My mom always told me that I would write my threes backward until I was five, so they were pretty worried about me,” Wu said, laughing.

But as he progressed through elementary school, his teachers started to appreciate his innate abilities.

“I learned all the material by myself and my teacher didn’t know what to do with me, so he had me tutor other kids in a corner during class,” Wu said. “And that made me feel pretty special about myself.”

By the time he reached Olympia High and its selective APEX program, Wu knew he had great potential for success – and so did the teaching staff and administrators at his school.

“First of all, he just raises the game of all the other students that are with him. He’s such a great leader,” Olympia Principal Guy Swenson said. “He absolutely sets an excellent example of what students should do, how they should act, the kind of ethics they should have, the study habits.”

Wu studied Latin and took so many advanced placement classes at Olympia, he said, “I actually ran out of math and science courses here, so I went to Valencia and took Calculus 3 and Microbiology.”

Wu scored a 2370 on the SAT exam. A 2400 is a perfect score. He missed one question.

He was uncertain of his GPA, saying it hovered in the 5.4 range. But the colleges Wu applied to certainly took notice. Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, Vanderbilt, Duke, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Brown, Rice, and, of course, Harvard, all granted Wu acceptance.

“My last and final acceptance turned out to be Harvard,” Wu said. And by early April, he had narrowed down his choices to Yale and Harvard.

“Everyone up to that point had been telling me to trust my gut: Find a place where I felt most at home,” Wu recalled. “And I didn’t believe that that was such a thing until I stepped foot on Harvard’s campus.”

He added, “It just felt right.”

At Harvard, Wu plans to major in Biomedical Engineering and minor in Philosophy.

When asked about the allure of such a demanding major, Wu explained, “It’s one of those really cool fields where you almost get to play God. You get to tinker with life… It’s an incredible field that’s really developing and expanding and pushing the boundaries of modern medicine as we know it.”

As for Philosophy, Wu said, “it’s just one of those things I think is really cool.”

He intends to make a career out of research rather than being a practitioner.

“As a researcher, I could really help loosen the chains that bind our doctors today,” he said. “The diseases that we still don’t have cures for, the treatments that we have yet to discover, I think that’s more fulfilling just for me personally, just to be on the forefront of that.”

His principal has little doubt Wu will represent Olympia High well during his time at Harvard.

“He’s a bit of a renascence man, Swenson said. “He’s good at math. He’s good at music. He’s good at leadership…And there’s this other quality he has that not many students have gotten yet: He’s just a darn likeable kid.”

Swenson said Wu fit in perfectly with the APEX – or Advanced Placement Experience – program at his school. It’s meant to draw high-performing students who get to take full loads of Advanced Placement courses throughout their high school careers.  

“The value, it really can’t be beat, because when you have 3,000 students on a campus, we can offer 27 advanced placement courses that many of our private competitors can’t come close to,” Swenson explained. “There’s quite a lot of movers and shakers here, and you can get an excellent public school education.”

Wu has no regrets in choosing a public high school. Olympia and its APEX program, he said, provided teachers who inspired and helped him develop a passion for science and math, especially.

“I’m kind of a weird, nerdy person who thinks that math is one of the most beautiful things ever,” Wu said. “There’s just an elegance about the way math works, how it all falls together… I think that is one of the coolest things in the world to be able to see genius in front of you.”