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A Literary Prodigy in Two Languages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Yang “Kelly” Yang has a way with words.

To hear the 15-year-old Cal State L.A. sophomore and literacy wunderkind describe her passion for the English language is like hearing a young Mozart savor his music.

Since the day she arrived on these shores from China at the age of 6, knowing nary a word of English, there has been no doubt she would become a scholar, teacher and writer in her adopted language.

“As a tiny girl she took a big, old typewriter and would just type for hours, page after page, on a never-ending piece of computer paper,” said her mother, Meiying Wang.

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Yang said she grew to love words and their possibilities by reading book after book while sitting in the corner of a restaurant where her mother worked one summer to make ends meet. At the time, she was 8--an age when most children are tuning into Looney Tunes.

“The books became my brother or sister, since I’m an only child,” Yang said.

It has certainly paid off. This year she’s one of 20 students named to the USA Today College Academic First Team, the youngest ever selected for the distinction.

Her first book of short stories, “Diary of a Young American Girl,” was published three years ago--when she was the ripe old age of 12.

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A year later, she skipped high school to begin college and quickly became a reporter for the campus paper. And now she’s the publisher of two monthly newspapers designed to help students relish writing and embrace the English language.

Passion for Helping Others

“She’s more than a talented student; she’s a teacher of others,” said Richard S. Maddox, Yang’s mentor and head of Cal State L.A.'s Early Entrance Program.

Kelly, as Yang prefers to be called, is enrolled in the campus program with 103 other overachievers, who start as freshmen at the average age of 13. They take classes with older students, while hanging out with other program participants--known as EEPsters--in their own lounge.

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Maddox said Yang’s academic success is remarkable, even by EEPster standards--a 3.96 grade-point average in political science. But even more outstanding, he said, is her passion for helping others achieve success through literacy in two languages.

Yang’s monthly newspapers feature articles in English and Chinese. The Los Angeles English Guide, distributed in the United States and China, teaches American idioms and slang expressions to foreign students, as well as exploring American life and colleges. The newsletter debuted last spring. Yang said it is designed to teach useful English to Chinese students, who traditionally learn the language through tedious memorization.

Meanwhile, the Pen Times seeks to encourage the art of writing among local students. Yang said she decided to start the paper, which prints 3,000 to 5,000 copies a month, after reading stories posted on the window of a private tutoring service near the San Gabriel apartment where she lives with her parents.

“The writing was horrible,” she said. “I was really shocked by the quality of the work.”

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Her paper includes writing tips, SAT advice, entertainment reports and student articles that emphasize writing skills.

‘Woman of the Year’

Yang said traditional methods of textbook learning fail to attract today’s students to the art of writing.

“They want ‘Toy Story 2' or ‘Pokemon.’ They want stuff they are interested in to write about,” said Yang, her voice becoming passionate. “The only reason I could do well at such a young age is because I could write well.”

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Her talents have brought her a shelf full of awards and mountains of praise from newspapers, including The Times, and even a state legislator. Cal State L.A. President James M. Rosser said she’s perhaps the most extraordinary student on his campus.

On Tuesday, she was honored by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and, not to be outdone, Assemblywoman Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) on Friday named Yang “Woman of the Year” in her 49th Assembly District.

“I’m hardly a woman,” joked Yang, who admits she tries to keep her age a secret among her college peers.

Tall, elegant and composed with her silver-rimmed glasses and oval face, Yang seems mature beyond her years, her professors say. She sounds like Britney Spears uttering the words of Albert Einstein.

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She’s on track to graduate in 2002--before she’s old enough to vote--and hopes to continue her education at Harvard. Much to her mother’s chagrin, though, she will pursue law, not medicine. Either way, her life has been an American fairy tale come true.

Yang was born halfway across the world in Tianjin, China. Her father was a doctor from a long line of physicians and her mother was an engineer.

She mastered mathematics as a toddler, played the piano at 3 and soon conversed like an adult. In Chinese culture, parents are disappointed when they have a girl, Yang said. “My father’s relatives bragged about their boys. So I want to show that girls and women can be just as good and better.”

Nine years ago, her whole world changed. Her family uprooted itself and moved to Louisiana, where her father received a college scholarship. It was another universe. She had rarely seen a white person in Tianjin, let alone an African American or a Latino. Her parents had $200 in their pockets the day they arrived, she said.

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Translating for Her Parents

In the bayou country, Yang spoke her first word of English and discovered her love of writing. After two years at Sherrouse Elementary School in Monroe, La., she won a medal in a statewide young authors contest. “It was the most amazing moment of my life,” she said.

Wang said her daughter was pressed into becoming a surrogate adult because, like many immigrant children, she became her parents’ translator. “We wanted to buy some new tires. So she called the garage to ask them the price. When they heard her voice they said we don’t work on toy cars,” Wang said.

Like many immigrants in those first few years, Yang’s family struggled for economic survival. Yang said she entered essay contests so she could win prizes. The family moved several times to get work before settling three years ago in San Gabriel, eight miles east of Los Angeles, where one out of every three residents is of Asian descent.

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The teachers at Oak Avenue Intermediate School in the Temple City Unified School District soon recognized Yang’s gifts. She jumped to more advanced classes and her book, consisting of autobiographical short stories, was published.

Soon her abilities had her teachers and principal suggesting Cal State L.A.'s Early Entrance Program as a perfect match for her talents. “My parents thought it was a joke at first, but I thought: Why not?” Yang said. She was so bored with school, she now admits, she that skipped classes--once. Not surprisingly, she scored in the top 5% on a standardized test required to enter the program.

When she arrived at Cal State L.A., EEP Director Maddox said she was somewhat naive but bravely plunged into political science, where students twice her age tend to gnaw down their younger classmates. Yang, who initially said little in classes, can now debate with the best of them--a regular Cokie Roberts, he said.

Her father now works in the import-export business, while her mother is a real estate broker. They live in an apartment complex where Yang says concentration is often difficult because of babies crying, neighbors fighting and doors slamming.

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Yang concedes that much of her driving ambition comes from a sense of guilt over how much her parents have given up for her.

“I am reminded how much they sacrificed to come here. We had everything in China,” said Yang, telling how her parents worked in service jobs to make ends meet.

Yang is not resting on her laurels, however. She expects her next book, “Yang Yang Experiences America,” to be released soon in China.


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