She’s only 17, but Helen Gao is more qualified than most adults to offer some advice on how to succeed in class and in life.
“Don’t procrastinate,” said Gao, a senior at Ferris High School who’s accomplished a great deal by refusing to put things off.
She’s a National Advanced Placement Scholar with a near-perfect Scholastic Aptitude Test score who found time to organize a sleeping bag drive for the homeless, teach computer skills to the elderly and serve on the Chase Youth Commission.
And still have a few moments to immerse herself in anime or a French-language novel.
“A lot of it is just managing your time,” Gao said. “If there’s some small task, then get that done as soon as possible. Otherwise you have a lot of things piling up in the back of your mind and that stresses you out even more.”
Gao confesses to being a reformed procrastinator who saw the light when her classes became progressively tougher.
“That means you have to plan ahead,” she said.
The payoff for Gao is that she can fit in an upper-division linear algebra class at Gonzaga University – “where the teacher is really great at explaining things.”
Either way, Gao is a quick study in almost everything she tries, as her 1580 SAT score shows. She also has scores of 4 or 5 on several Advanced Placement exams.
That should open the door to almost any university, but so far Gao has applied only to the University of Washington. Other schools will be in the mix.
Gao definitely plans for a STEM-related career, possibly in computer science.
“She’s pretty humble, which is sometimes not the case with kids who are that smart,” Ferris Principal Ken Schutz said.
An only child, Gao has been immersed in academia since she wore diapers. Both of her parents are Chinese immigrants who met at Cornell University.
Born in Dallas, her family moved to the Inland Northwest, where her mother worked as an immunology professor and cancer researcher at Washington State University-Spokane.
Her father is a professor at Fresno State, and he gets back to Spokane as often as possible. Life got a bit more complicated earlier this year, when Gao’s mother took a new position at Loyola University in Chicago.
That means Gao is by herself during the week, but shrugs that off.
“My parents trust me enough that I’d like to think I’ve developed enough life skills to manage on my own,” she said.
She’s done much more than that during an ever-widening quest for knowledge. She’s found it not only at Ferris and GU, but also at the McDonald’s on South Regal.
Her job there last summer served as a practicum of sorts in the soft sciences.
Marveling at the interactions at the front desk, she witnessed people who would pay for the meals of other customers, and others “who tried to scam us.”
“I had to deal with that as well, but it really taught me to think on my feet,” said Gao, who donated all of her earnings to Crosswalk.
Gao also finds joy in foreign languages. She speaks Mandarin with her family, but French is her favorite.
“It’s a beautiful language, with so many different ways to express yourself,” said Gao, who is the French Club president at Ferris. She’s explored the language in literature, appreciating “that the subject matter can be darker, with more relational story lines.”
But at the end of the day, all the minutes she’s saved add up to some treasured moments soaking in some anime.
“Immersing myself in that really helps me unwind,” Gao said.
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