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Pete Souza  /  The White House
The president talked with Samantha Garvey, left, about her environmental sciences project examining the effect of physical environment and predators on a species of mussel, in the State Dining Room of the White House on Feb. 7.
TODAY contributor
updated 2/8/2012 10:17:24 AM ET 2012-02-08T15:17:24

Two weeks after attending the State of the Union address, formerly homeless teen Samantha Garvey was back in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, where she displayed her scientific acumen — and got a shout-out from the president.

Garvey, 18, a Long Island, N.Y. science whiz, garnered national headlines when she became a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search while she and her family were living in a homeless shelter.

Though she didn't make the finals in that competition, she was among 100 students from around the U.S. who attended the White House Science Fair Tuesday. She presented her project, 2 1/2 years in the making, examining the effect the ecosystem has on mollusks.

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In his speech, President Obama lauded Garvey for overcoming "difficult circumstances," and joked that she might want to angle for a job with the various federal agency heads attending the fair, reports the Associated Press.

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It's been a heady time for the brainy high school senior, who saw her life turned upside down when her family moved into a homeless shelter New Year's Day. Her father had lost his job and her mother was injured in a car accident that left her unable to work. Payments on their Brentwood, N.Y. home were in arrears and the family was evicted.

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But Garvey has had a happy turn of events in recent weeks: Her local congressman Steve Israel made Garvey an honored guest at the State of the Union, and AT&T presented her with a $50,000 scholarship check during an appearance on "The Ellen Degeneres Show." Best of all, local social services worked to place Samantha and her family in subsidized housing.

Appearing on TODAY on Jan. 25 following her first trip to Washington, Garvey talked about keeping herself focused on her schoolwork despite her family's trying times.

"Throughout all the things I've faced, I've been able to go to school and get my education...do my studies," she told Ann Curry.

"My parents always say 'keep your head up.' If you look down and mope, nothing is going to come out of it.' I always took that to heart."

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

  1. Closed captioning of: Homeless teen ‘in awe’ over trip to SOTU

    >>> 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


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