St. Francis Prep Student Cycles His Way to the Top of the Nation

From Left: Patrick McLaughlin, the principal of St. Francis Prep; Jayden Li; Robyn Armon, the director of guidance and college counseling at St. Francis Prep. (Photo: Courtesy of St. Francis Prep)

FRESH MEADOWS — For high school senior Jayden Li, success seems to come naturally.

Over the past four years at St. Francis Prep, he has taken nine Advanced Placement classes — four in his senior year — passed all the college exams he has taken so far, and has a perfect GPA. Plus, beyond his academics, he is a competitive cyclist, ranked nationally in his age group.

However, Li, 18, is more than a prodigy. Throughout his high school career, he has dedicated himself to his education, studying for hours between trips across the country for cycling competitions. 

In recognition of his commitment, Li has earned a place as a finalist for the National Merit Scholarship, a prestigious award highly regarded by universities and employers.

“I was pretty excited. I knew there were some benefits to being a semifinalist. For some schools specifically, for a finalist, they might provide you full tuition for it,” Li said.

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an annual competition among high school students. Over 1.3 million students take the PSAT each year, which serves as an initial screen for the scholarship; from there, 16,000 students are selected to be semi-finalists. This month, 7,140 students will be awarded the scholarship.

St. Francis Prep requires all sophomore and junior students to take the PSAT. In his junior year, Li scored 1490 on his PSAT out of 1520. The following academic year, he was told by Robyn Armon, the director of guidance and college counseling, that he had been selected as a semi-finalist. 

The first time Armon met Li, he came in to schedule his courses for his junior year, and she encouraged him to take an honors English class. It would improve his transcript, she said, making him more enticing to college recruiters. 

He jumped at the opportunity. He is “that kid,” Armon said, comparing him to the college students who started Yahoo. He is going to do something monumental with his life, she said.

“He cares about the world. He wants to know what’s going on out there. He knows what he knows, but he knows he has so much more to learn,” Armon said.

High school did not start smoothly for Li, who was in a freshman class that remained remote during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he used that year to discover himself, trying to learn different languages and his interests. At home, he speaks Mandarin, and his love for math and critical thinking grew. 

He decided the time he was learning remotely to learn on his own, putting down his video game controller and turning to informational YouTube videos about science and math. 

For Li, St. Francis Prep has given him the chance to challenge himself with advanced courses. This year, he is taking AP physics. Through the course, he has learned how to communicate his thoughts with his peers and work on a problem collaboratively. 

In total, the high school offers 17 Advanced Placement classes, courses that improve students’ transcripts and may give them college credit if they pass the end-of-year exam. 

“Going into high school, I knew that I wanted to take advanced math and science classes, and to be able to take them is just fantastic, it’s a great intellectual experience,” Li said.

Living only a few blocks away from the Fresh Meadows high school, Li walks to and from campus every day. However, he will later grab his helmet and bike, and train for miles as a competitive cyclist. In total, he trains for about 10 to 15 hours a week. 

During the offseason for cycling, he joined the school track team to stay in fit condition. His hard work does not go unnoticed by Patrick McLaughlin, the principal at St. Francis Prep.

“Jayden has worked hard to get to this point. It’s not just intellect to come here. It’s a combination of both [intellect and hard work],” McLaughlin said.

As Li looks towards his future, he doesn’t quite know yet where he is going to college. He has applied to over 25 schools, and his top three are currently MIT, Yale, and Cornell. Most colleges begin announcing their accepted students in late March and into April, and Li has already been accepted into the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

His goal is a university that offers a close-knit community, and he will seek out majors that have a focus on artificial intelligence, because he’s certain he wants to be involved in the growing field, perhaps as a product engineer or a research scientist.

Despite being Presbyterian, Li has always appreciated the importance of Catholic education and its core values during his time at St. Francis Prep. The prayer of St. Francis has always resonated with him.

“Whether our kids are Catholic or not Catholic, they are walking away with a sense of what the sense of St. Francis is: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,’” McLaughlin said. “They know the values of the school as well, and it carries them in a physical, social, emotional, and intellectual way as they go into college.”