Harvard-Bound Student: ‘Without OPL, I would not be the person I am today’

Harvard student Yan Zhang

Yan Zhang, in a photo provided by her mother, Hongyang Tan.

Yan Zhang is not your typical teenager. Unless the typical teenager has won countless awards and scholarships, excelled in numerous AP courses, read at Carnegie Hall, and is en route to Harvard University. She credits Omaha Public Library for contributing to her academic success.

Yan was born in China and moved to Omaha with her family when she was 3 years old. She was an academic stand-out at Millard West High School, graduating in 2012 at age 17. She garnered many awards and scholarships including being a state winner of the 2011 Siemens Award for Advanced Placement, being named to The Omaha World-Herald’s 2012 All State Academic Team, and being a 2012 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards National Gold Medal recipient.

She began frequenting Millard Branch, 13214 Westwood Ln., at age 5, as the Library offered a space for her weekly Chinese lessons. It was there that her love of reading, writing and volunteering blossomed.

“I remember the first book I ever read on my own. It was about dinosaurs… and I realized I didn’t know enough about dinosaurs to satiate my curiosity, so I began reading more and more,” Yan said. (In this news release documenting her Siemens Awards win, she was asked what sparked her interest in science and math. Her response: “Picking up books about planets and dinosaurs.”)

Yan quickly graduated through the levels of books until she reached the adult books collection. “My years at the library are a pretty accurate chronicle of my mental development!” she exclaimed.

Hongyang Tan, Yan’s mother, recalled with a smile when her daughter would lug a bag full of books home nearly every week growing up. “She would borrow about 10 to 16 books to take home to read, though she might not be able to finish them all,” she said.

As a junior high student, Yan won the Friends of Omaha Public Library-sponsored Virginia Frank Memorial Writing Contest two years in a row. The first year she wrote of a man locked in the library at night where story characters come to life. For her subsequent win, she wrote a story about segregated libraries during the Civil Rights movement; heavy subject matter for an eighth grader.

While winning writing contests, she was also volunteering at Millard Branch. “I began volunteering because my dad told me I had to ‘give back’ to the library for generously allowing us to use the meeting rooms for our weekly Chinese lessons. Volunteering at the library… triggered a lot of what I am doing now.” What she’s doing now is serving as a City Year corps member in Columbus, Ohio. “It’s an organization which trains 17-24 year olds to be full-time tutors and mentors in low performing schools across the nation,” Yan said.

Yan will begin classes at Harvard in fall 2013. She plans to study government and international relations, or English and creative writing – or both.

She has a strong view on the role that libraries play in the community and the positive impact they provide. “Libraries are an underappreciated resource. They bring together the community and impart knowledge for free. Without Omaha Public Library, I would not be the person I am today. I will be forever grateful to the people who support OPL and make these wonderful places possible.”

Take a cue from Yan and check out books that interest you; the possibilities are limitless. Utilize the OPL’s convenient holds process and have your requested books available at your preferred location within days. If you would like more information on making a difference through volunteering, contact Jody duRand at 402.444.4807 or jdurand@omahalibrary.org.

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2 thoughts on “Harvard-Bound Student: ‘Without OPL, I would not be the person I am today’

  1. How inspiring! Libraries do indeed make a difference. I wish more people remembered to utilize their infinite resources.

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