What stands out about Javon Mullings is his extraordinary determination.

When he was just six months old, he rolled off the bed and onto a hot plate on the floor, which caused third degree burns on his hand, the back of his head, and his back. He doesn’t remember the accident or physical pain, but the teasing he took from other kids about his scars made him embarrassed to turn his back on them, especially after he emigrated with his father and two older sisters from Jamaica to New York City when he was six years old. “That’s when I felt the cruelty of the world,” he said.

They lived with his father’s sister in Brooklyn. His father, whom Javon calls his “rock,” found a job as a security guard and worked nights a long distance from the apartment. Javon saw less of him than he wanted and needed. “I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.”

To fit in, he tried to be like the children who made fun of him by making fun of others, even though that didn’t feel right. He’d been the top student of his class in Jamaica but calls his achievement in elementary school in Brooklyn “nothing to write home about.” Stuck in the middle in middle school, he says, he “fell into a pit of obscurity.”

He didn’t like it there, and he moved to the top of his class in high school through a desire to make his father proud, the guidance of teachers and mentors, and a truly impressive will. The motivation came after one of his sisters dropped out of college and left their father with unpaid loans. “I actually saw him crying and that was devastating. This was the person I looked up to my entire life. I was not going to let him down.”

He worked on self-improvement. He learned a proper handshake. He improved his vocabulary and pronunciation by looking up words in the dictionary and emulating announcers on radio and television, including the National Geographic channel. He’d look up others’ opinions of books they read for school and “try to argue that opinion so I could practice speaking.”

Several teachers became mentors and helped him expand his horizons beyond the classroom into student government, the golf team and the robotics team. “My goal was to be valedictorian so I wasn’t going to pass up extra credit.” He signed up for Fast Track, which recruited students interested in learning about the financial industry, and got paid internships the past two summers, this summer at the Federal Reserve. He tutored students who asked for help.

Javon did become valedictorian and now is a sophomore at Wheaton College, where he’s gotten interested in bioinformatics and joined a campus service ministry. A high school teacher suggested the Beat the Odds scholarship and leadership development program. “I thank God every day that I encountered them. They gave me a medium to speak about what had happened and put everything in perspective. It really helped me. The scholarship too. My dad couldn’t pay for the education I’m getting.”