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Video: Homeless teen ‘in awe’ over trip to SOTU

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    >>> this morning on education nation today, a young woman who went from a homeless shelter to last night's state of the union address . we'll talk to her in a moment. but first, nbc's chief education correspondent rehema ellis has details. hey, good morning.

    >> good morning, ann. samantha garvey is here tnear the top of her class in high school and just clal identified for a science competition, amazing for anyone, but there is much more to samantha 's story. she looks like a typical teenager. but for samantha garvey , life has been an extraordinary whirlwind since news broke that she's a semifinalist in the nation's prestigious intel science competition with a shot at the $100,000 prize.

    >> i'm not sure how to put it into words. i don't know. it's amazing, wild, crazy.

    >> reporter: beneath the petite frame and chipped nail polish is a story of triumph over turmoil. as word got out that the brentwood, new york, high school senior with a 3.9 grade point average was also homeless.

    >> basically we were having financial trouble and we got behind on rent payments. by november/december we were notified that we had to leave the house and we were evicted on december 31.

    >> reporter: samantha , her parents and her younger brother and sister were forced to leave this home and move to a nearby shelter where the family dog was not allowed.

    >> on the holidays you're not celebrating the holidays. you're putting your stuff in storage and looking for a place to live. it's really not -- it's kind of -- it's bad.

    >> reporter: with the help of her counselors and teachers, particularly rebecca samantha managed to stay on track with her studies in marine biology .

    >> she has the intellect, the drive, the determination to succeed no matter what.

    >> reporter: officials in suffolk county social services stepped in and offered the family a three-bedroom home through an affordable housing program for families in shelters.

    >> we had to leave everything behind at the old place so to have everything given to us -- you know, this is completely amazing. thank you.

    >> reporter: a call from the ellen degeneres show resulted in more good news.

    >> a $50,000 scholarship. [ cheers and applause ]

    >> i could not believe it. i have never seen that many zeroes in my life.

    >> reporter: then an invitation from her local congressman to attend the president's state of the union address .

    >> she has not only inspired her peers, but she has inspired her community and the nation at large.

    >> my parents said, keep your head up. if you look down and mope, nothing will come out of it. i always took that to heart. i just kept a positive mentality.

    >> reporter: samantha garvey is keeping that positive outlook as she waits to hear from colleges. this is a kid who told me she figured out early on that education is her ticket to a better life . she's truly a remarkable kid and it's a great story, ann?

    >> it is, rehema ellis. thank you so much. samantha garvey now joins us. good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> you have in your hand still a copy of the president's speech.

    >> yes.

    >> he's signed it for you? is that right?

    >> yes.

    >> want to show us the signature?

    >> yes.

    >> a speech from the state of the union address . you carried this, driving all night to get here. are you tired this morning?

    >> definitely pretty tired.

    >> what's it like for you to have been there? what's the strongest memory you have of that last night?

    >> just being there. it was the craziest feeling. being behind the scenes you get a perspective you would never dream of having. this was once in a lifetime . just standing there and you see the first lady come out and you're just struck, in awe, like frozen. all you want to do is gaze at her. she's beautiful. the president comes in and you're clapping and clapping. i don't know how long i clapped. that was the longest i have ever clapped and i didn't mind. everything was so amazing. having these historical figures, people so prominent standing right in front of you.

    >> a lot of people listening now are more amazed by where you started from to get to that experience. what was it that allowed you, despite the sufferings in your family -- there was a car accident, your parents losing b jobs, an illness. all kinds of issues. what allowed you despite the fact that you were homeless to still maintain such a high g.p.a., to be so good in school?

    >> i would say my research, science have been my ticket out. you know? throughout all of the things i faced i have been able to go to school and get my education and do my studies. that's my way out. keep me focused, keep me from going off track.

    >> you're saying it was not a crutch but it was the thing that was beautiful.

    >> yes, exactly.

    >> at a time when things with were not easy.

    >> yes.

    >> as i understand it you are getting your dog back is this.

    >> we got our dog back. an anonymous person came forward and paid for our dog and took her out of the shelter. she's now happy in a little dog hotel doing much better.

    >> you're still in the shelter.

    >> yes.

    >> when do you think you may be living at home because your father is working again.

    >> hopefully very soon.

    >> also hopefully is you will get accepted to a good college. you have applied to yale and brown.

    >> yes.

    >> you are waiting to hear as we heard from rehema who may or may not accept you. what do you want to do with your life?

    >> i want to keep doing what i'm doing now. i want to work hard and continue doing my science. being at the state of the union last night i got to meet fantastic people. i thought, i kind of want to do what they do. i want to take the policy aspect and keep doing that along with the science part of it.

    >> well, you have shown us all that there is great potential all over america that needs to be encouraged. thank you for showing us so much.

    >> thank you.

    >> such an uplifting story. samantha , thank you. good luck to

TODAY contributor
updated 1/25/2012 10:39:36 AM ET 2012-01-25T15:39:36

On New Year’s Day, teenage prodigy Samantha Garvey and her family moved into a homeless shelter on Long Island, wondering what the future might hold after being evicted from their home.

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Less than a month later, Garvey had a roof over her head — in the House of Representatives chamber. The 18-year-old high school senior joined a gallery of political luminaries Tuesday night to attend President Obama's State of the Union address.

Video: Homeless teen ‘in awe’ over trip to SOTU (on this page)

“Just being there, it was the craziest feeling,’’ Garvey told TODAY's Ann Curry Wednesday. “Being behind the scenes, you get this perspective that you never dream of having. This is completely once in a lifetime.’’

The 4-foot-11 teen stood tall as the guest of Long Island congressman Steve Israel, who made the invite after her story of reaching the semifinals in this year’s prestigious Intel Science Talent Search made national headlines.

Israel wanted not only to honor Garvey for her perseverance against adversity, but also to raise the question of how a middle-class family of an academic prodigy could fall into homelessness. Garvey’s father lost his job, her parents were in a car accident that left her mother unable to work for nine months, and the family incurred the cost of traveling to El Salvador because of the death of Garvey’s maternal grandmother. They fell behind on the payments on their home in Brentwood, N.Y., and were evicted on New Year’s Eve.

“On the holidays, you’re not celebrating the holidays,’’ Garvey told NBC News. “You’re putting your stuff in storage and looking for a place to live. It’s not really festive. It’s bad.’’

Story: Whiz kid's homeless dad: 'Never give up'

Just days after Garvey and her twin 13-year-old siblings moved into a Bay Shore, N.Y. shelter, Garvey learned she was a semifinalist in the Intel contest. Her 2 ½-year study on mollusks and the ecosystem was selected from entries by 1,839 seniors across 497 high schools and 44 states. Though it was announced Wednesday that she didn't make the finals of the $100,000 contest, her accomplishment has nonetheless earned resounding praise.

“I would say that my research, my science, has been my ticket out,’’ said Garvey, who maintains a 3.9 grade point average. “Throughout all the things I’ve faced, I’ve been able to go to school and get my education, pursue my research and do my studies. That’s been my way out. That’s been able to keep me focused and keep me from going off-track.’’

Video: Making a Difference: good things in store for homeless teen

“She has the intellect, she has the drive, (and) she has the determination to succeed no matter what,’’ her science research teacher, Rebecca Grella, told NBC News.

Her perseverance has also been rewarded financially. Garvey received a $50,000 check sponsored by AT&T during her appearance on “The Ellen Degeneres Show’’ last week to be put toward her education. She has applied to Brown and Yale, and looks to continue her work in marine biology.

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“I want to keep doing what I’m doing now,’’ she told Curry. “I want to work hard and continue to do my science. Being at the State of the Union last night, I got to meet all these fantastic people, and I just thought, 'I want to do what they do.’ I want to take the policy aspect of it and keep doing that in the future along with the science part of it.’’

While her family is currently still living in the shelter, officials from Suffolk County Social Services have offered them a three-bedroom home through an affordable housing program. Her father is back working as a cab driver, and the Garveys will be reunited with the family dog that was placed in an animal shelter when they were evicted. An anonymous person paid for the 4-year-old pit bull named Pulga to be cared for as the family recovers from their recent turmoil.

"My parents always say 'keep your head up,'" Garvey told NBC News. “If you look down and mope, nothing is going to come out of it. I always took that to heart. I just kept a positive mentality."

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints


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