When Elijah Devaughn Jr. found out he was accepted into Harvard University's class of 2021, he said it was “one of the best moments” of his life.
His acceptance proved that “hard work pays off,” Devaughn, 18, told ABC News. “You know, that the struggle isn't for nothing.”
Devaughn grew up in a single-parent household in Compton, California, a city that has been plagued by gun violence and gang activity for decades.
“I remember the nights with the gun shots,” Devaughn said of his childhood. “My mom running in my room saying, ‘E.J. we need to lay on the floor.’”
He recalled, “I'm sitting there, laying on the floor, looking into my mother's eyes and it's just us.”
Devaughn’s father, Elijah Devaughn, was incarcerated when Devaughn was a baby. He would go on to serve 13 years in prison, missing much of his son’s childhood.
“I remember in kindergarten … I was asked, ‘Where's your dad?’ and I used to say, ‘He's in Hawaii on a business trip,’” Devaughn said. “And I said that for four years, five years.”
"Good Morning America" is profiling more graduates with special stories all week. Tune in to "GMA" from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., ET.
Devaughn’s mother, Sherree Lewis Devaughn, took him to visit his dad in prison nearly every other weekend. She recalled using those visits as teachable moments for her son.
“I would always tell him about cause and effect,” she said. “[Devaughn’s father] made the wrong choice. When you make the wrong choice, you'll have consequences that you have to deal with.”
Devaughn points to watching the struggles of his dad, who is now back at home and reunited with his family, as a source of inspiration.
“When I pray to God at night I say, ‘I don't thank you for placing my my dad in jail, but I thank you for the life you've given me, even if that's a part of it,’" he said. “Because it ignites that fire, you know? It pushes you to wanna achieve more, wanna do more.”
Devaughn did achieve more, attending Chadwick School, a private school in Los Angeles County, on a scholarship. He said he struggled to fit in at first, but is now one of the most active students on the school campus.
“I’m in chorus. I do all the musicals and plays here. I’m actually doing dance this year,” Devaughn said of his activities. “I play football. I run track. I’m involved in peer mentors.”
Devaughn has also maintained straight A’s at Chadwick and earned a 33 out of 36 on his ACT.
Devaughn said he was inspired by watching his mom, a teacher, overcome the odds to pursue her own higher education degree.
"My mom is my superwoman," he said today on "Good Morning America." "When I was younger I remember she was in school working and still trying to raise little old me and I think just watching her on her fight, on her struggle, kind of ignited that fire in me and it showed me, you know, that you can prevail."
He added, "I’ll never forget when she walked across the stage earning her master’s degree."
Next month, Devaughn will graduate from high school and move across the country to attend Harvard, an Ivy League school with one of the lowest acceptance rates.
“Getting accepted into a prestigious university like Harvard, I think it means the world,” Devaughn said. “It means God is able. It means that hard work pays off. It means that, you know, struggles end.”
“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he added.
For those students still on their path to college, Devaughn shared the piece of advice that he said has guided him through life.
"I kind of live by this quote now, ‘Hard work is the one thing that can ultimately change lives,'" he said. "Just work hard in whatever you do and embrace who you are."
"Good Morning America" is profiling more graduates with special stories all week. Tune in from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., EDT.