While her name is immediately striking because it’s so unique, it’s certainly not the only thing about Disney Rattanakongkham that makes her stand out.
Disney, a senior at Wharton High, was recently awarded a prestigious scholarship called the Horatio Alger State Scholarship, that pays her $10,000 over four years to attend college. Horatio Alger, Jr., was a prolific author in the 19th and early 20th centuries whose books inspired its readers to work hard and persevere through adversity.
Disney is one of just 45 students throughout the entire state of Florida to receive this award, which recognizes students who excel academically, despite facing significant adversity. Nationally, only 577 awards were given in 2017. Collectively, the recipients of these state scholarships have maintained a GPA of 3.71 while coming from households with an average total annual household income of just $15,456.
While the Horatio Alger scholarship puts her in elite company across the nation, it’s not even the biggest accomplishment Disney has experienced on her journey to higher education.
This fall, she will attend Stanford University in Stanford, CA, on a full ride academic scholarship.
Disney is a QuestBridge National College Match Student. QuestBridge is a national nonprofit organization that matches high-achieving, low-income students with prestigious universities across the nation.
Disney ranked the top five universities she wanted to attend, and her number one choice, Stanford, chose her to receive a full scholarship, including her room and board and covering all costs to attend. While there’s no expected contribution from her parents, she is responsible for paying $5,000 each year. The Horatio Alger scholarship, which is $10,000 over four years, will help her pay those expenses.
Disney’s parents are from Laos, a Southeast Asian country bordered by Vietnam and Thailand. Her father came to the U.S. in the 1970s, and her mom came in the 1980s. The two met in Colorado, where Disney was born. She says her parents didn’t like the snow in Colorado, so they moved to Florida in 2007. Disney was 8 years old and in the third grade.
“We were actually homeless for several months when we moved to Florida,” Disney explains. “We had to move in and out of hotels. To keep us occupied, my parents often took us to the library. I think that’s where my love for reading and learning really started.” Disney eventually attended Hunter’s Green Elementary and Benito Middle School before attending Wharton.
While she says her family now has much more stability than it did back then, “my parents (still) aren’t in the best financial situation,” she admits, making college only available to her thanks to the scholarships she has achieved.
‘Work Hard, Play Hard’
“My philosophy is work hard and play hard,” says Disney. She thinks that’s what she’ll get at Stanford, where she says, “It’s rooted in academics, but it’s also a huge football school. You can see all the traditions, plus students get to do things like take road trips to San Francisco, so I feel like it’s the best of both worlds.”
While she hasn’t decided exactly what she wants to study, she says she’s leaning toward biomedical engineering.
“It’s a huge field,” she says. “I’m interested in researching tissue regeneration, and I like the idea of doing research behind the scenes in the medical field.”
Disney says she took 10 advanced placement (AP) classes throughout high school, but she only took classes she thought she would enjoy, such as physics.
“I wanted to challenge myself,” she says. Because she knew she wanted to attend an elite school out of state, she knew those AP classes probably wouldn’t turn into college credits — as they do at many schools — but that they were important to be competitive to get into the school she wanted to attend.
“Even if I could get credit for my AP classes, I wouldn’t want to,” she says. “I’d still want to take classes with the Stanford professors.”
While her academic achievements have been enough to earn her the title of salutatorian at Wharton with her 6.72 GPA, Disney says she doesn’t just work hard academically. She also is sure to play hard, doing lots of extracurricular activities, such as leading pep rallies at school, and planning tailgate parties.
She’s also the corresponding secretary for Student Government and a member of Mu Alpha Theta, the math honor society at Wharton.
“I have a lot of friends in Mu Alpha Theta,” she says. “We go to competitions as a team and have a lot of fun.” She says she began competing in Mu Alpha Theta while she was taking Algebra II in ninth grade (typically a class for high school juniors). As a senior, she has been competing in statistics.
Plans For Stanford
Through QuestBridge, Disney already is interacting with other students who will be freshmen with her at Stanford.
“There are some really cool freshman seminar classes, and it seems like everyone’s there to support each other, not compete with each other,” she says. “There will probably be students who can’t afford to go home over the breaks, so QuestBridge helps us connect with each other for Thanksgiving dinner or other activities. We’re already setting up study sessions and talking about how we’re going to help each other.”
Before she heads off to college this fall, though, Disney says she plans to relax. “It’s been a very intense four years,” she says. “I really want to take time for myself, and do things I haven’t had time to do.” What kinds of things? Maybe travel with friends, she says, and, “I have a long list of books to read.”
Disney says she’s hoping moving across the country will give her a variety of new experiences.
“Going to Stanford is definitely getting me out of my bubble,” she says. “I have been with the same group of people since fourth grade. I love my friends, but I want to go out and explore the world.”