Private Education - The head boy from LA's mean streets

4th October 2013 at 01:00
Scholarship student flourishes at British boarding school

"You'd be in the house, hear gunshots, look out of the window and just see someone lying down there," Juan Luquin said.

Growing up in a one-bedroom flat on the outskirts of Los Angeles' notorious South Central area, Juan feared stepping outside because of gang-related violence, and saw "three or four people shot right there in front of me" as he peered from his living room window.

But now - marking an incredible journey from poverty to privilege - Juan has become head boy at a British boarding school.

The child of illegal immigrants to the US from Mexico, seventeen-year-old Juan has been studying at the historic #163;28,000-a-year Taunton School in Somerset for the past year, after winning a scholarship. His place was funded by businessman Bob Peirce, a Taunton alumnus and former British consul general in LA, and the Fulfillment Fund, an LA charity that helps deprived students to achieve a college degree. Taunton has also contributed financially.

"I've changed completely as a person, mentally and physically, since I came to the UK," Juan told TES. "I got a new haircut, dress a bit more British and listen to different music.

"Although I may have changed, I don't forget where I come from. It's unbelievable how I got this far and what I have done in just one year. My family is really proud of me and I use that as motivation to continue to succeed."

Juan sailed through A-level Spanish and AS-level English last year, but struggled with physics A level, having not studied the subject before. "The curriculum is so difficult and intense compared to back home," he said. "The class sizes here are much smaller, the homework is more challenging. Usually, back home, I was always on top of my classes."

But Juan has since learned to cope with the academic work, and his boarding house now seems like a home from home. He makes sure to pack spicy Mexican Takis crisps and Mamut marshmallow biscuits in his luggage at the start of term. He has learned to play the quintessentially British sports of rugby and cricket, and is captain of the football team.

After one more year at Taunton, he hopes to return to the US to study electrical engineering at a top Californian university, or at Harvard University on the East Coast.

Juan's parents are unable to visit him in the UK because of their illegal status in the US. His father is still fighting deportation and his mother is waiting for US citizenship, so it was his grandmother and his uncle who accompanied him on his initial visit to the school. He has two brothers, aged 12 and 15, with whom he used to share their LA apartment's only bedroom.

A key aspect of Juan's scholarship is that he returns to his former school - New Designs-University Park, a charter school in downtown LA - to see his tutors and give talks to students. The school was established to improve disadvantaged children's chances of going to university, so it welcomes his visits. "Sometimes the pupils need to be told to keep working hard, especially if they have been slacking off over the holidays," Juan said.

He added that although he dreamed of adopting a "British accent", he would never forget his roots; he described his parents as his role models, saying they motivated him to work hard.

John Newton, headmaster of Taunton, said that Juan had "triumphed" at the school and was an "inspirational figure".

Dr Newton is set to travel to LA this academic year to investigate the possibility of running the scholarship again with the Fulfillment Fund. "Juan has been so receptive to what the school has to offer," he said. "He's remarkable."

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