Calvin Henaku

Year of Graduation: 
2019
Calvin Henaku

“When you get the chance to do things you love, you just have to take it."

As senior Calvin Henaku settles into a stiff-backed chair in the Latin Study, a huge grin splashes across his face. It’s often said that there’s something for everyone at Exeter. For Calvin, it’s more like there’s everything for someone. The 18-year-old seizes upon every opportunity offered ­— and then some. “When you get the chance to do things you love, you just have to take it. … That’s what I've done here and that’s why I’m so happy.”

Growing up in Sunnyside, an ethnically-diverse neighborhood just south of downtown Chicago, Calvin’s opportunities to explore were limited. “I always lived so sheltered back in Chicago,” says Calvin, a first-generation American. His parents immigrated to Illinois from Ghana and his father currently works as a valet. “The fact that I even had the chance to come to Exeter, it was like starting a new life.”

Early on in middle school, Calvin says, he was a slacker. “I used to fall asleep in class and get Cs and Ds on my report card.” Then his older brother gave him a Kindle. “I remember I tried finding games on it, but I couldn’t,” Calvin says. “I could only read books and check the vocabulary entries of words, and soon I became a prolific reader.”  His grades improved, and a teacher recommended he apply for a grant from the Daniel Murphy Scholarship Foundation, a local institution that provides tuition and travel expenses for academically-promising Chicago youth from low-income families to attend high-performing high schools.

With the foundation’s help, Calvin made it to Exeter, excited but reserved. “When I started here, I thought that my potential was limited because of the background that I came from,” he says. “Now I think people are not necessarily smarter than me. I can have as much of an effect on this world as they can.”

Learning to learn

Calvin got his first look at the wider world as a prep, when he traveled to the Gallo-Roman site of Bibracte in France with fellow Exeter classics students. (Fun fact: The only reason Calvin initially registered for Latin was because he thought he wouldn’t have to speak the language in class. “I was like, oh, this will be the easiest class for me! Classics is the love that I never expected I’d have coming into Exeter.”) Between digging in ancient ruins, soaking up lectures on the divisions of paleo-metallurgy, and devouring crepes, Calvin forged lifelong friendships and gained confidence.

As long as I can change one person’s life, I’ll think I’ve been successful.”

Over the next three years, Calvin’s attitude about learning itself evolved. “I always thought intelligence meant not needing to get help from other people, and toughing it out on your own,” he says. “I quickly figured out that in order to learn more, you have to learn with other people.”

At least twice a week Calvin volunteers in the Academic Support Center, where he demystifies his favorite subjects — math, physics, Latin and Greek — for all comers. “I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” he says. “I want to be a physicist, or more specifically, a professor. [Tutoring] is my favorite thing to do because it allows me to help other people.”

Giving back with service

Connecting with people is Calvin’s thing. As a member of the Big Sib Little Sib mentoring group, he has developed a strong friendship with a local boy. Once a month they meet to bowl, cook or watch movies. “He reminds me a lot of myself when I was young,” Calvin says. When new students arrive at Abbott Hall, Calvin is among the first to greet them. As a dorm proctor he totes luggage and offers advice on adjusting to the boarding school life. In his role of student listener, he is a trusted peer with a sympathetic ear.

Calvin makes others his priority, even if it cuts into his own personal classwork time. “Lots of people here get so stressed about grades,” he says. “My relationship with another person is much more important than homework, and I think that the trust you establish between each other is more important than any burden it could place on you.”

Feeding an intellectual’s fire

In addition to his non-sibi service and a full course load, Calvin audits extra classes that pique his interest, like astronomy and existentialism. As his adviser says, “If Calvin used all of his free periods to study for his primary courses, as most students do, his GPA would be higher, but he honestly cares much more about learning than about getting all As.”

During the summer, he worked independently to advance through two math courses, self-studied a full year of Greek and ran 965 miles. Oh, and tried to improve his 40-second solve time for a Rubik’s Cube. “There are eight-year-olds who can solve it in 10 seconds,” Calvin says. “It’s extremely humbling.”

Last winter, Calvin joined fellow Physics Club members at the United States Invitational Young Physicists Tournament, where the team took first place. “I feel like physics is just a way that you can view the world that’s not readily apparent to our eyes,” he says. “My heroes are Einstein and [Richard] Feynman and like them, I want to contribute to the greater body of science and knowledge.”

His love of science and numbers has already made a contribution to Exeter with the creation of a new class, Mathematical Physics, which explores differential equations associated with mechanics, gravitation, wave motion and heat diffusion. “Sometimes when I look at the faculty and realize that I’m under the gaze of some of the most well-respected and intelligent people that I will ever meet… the fact that I get to even converse with these people on a daily basis…It’s amazing!”

The future in a gap year

Calvin will receive a Classical Diploma this June — an added recognition bestowed upon students who complete advanced coursework in both Latin and Greek — and is considering taking a gap year before college. He’d like to spend a few months doing a teaching internship, “learning how people learn,” he says. From there, he wants to further develop the nonprofit he co-founded, Project for Better Education, with a trip to Africa, perhaps to his family’s homeland in Ghana. His goal is to increase access to education in the developing world with smartphone applications. “As long as I can change one person’s life, I’ll think I’ve been successful.”

— Jennifer Wagner