Although the admissions process can stretch from September to late April, Seventeen-year-old Lillee Izadi has already had her first heartbreak.
SARASOTA — The American ideal of the high school senior year experience often includes a rush of milestones: prom, football games and, of course, college applications.
About 17.5 million students enrolled in undergraduate programs in the United States this fall, and those numbers are projected to skyrocket to nearly 20 million in the next 10 years, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Seventeen-year-old Lillee Izadi became one of those millions this year as a student at Booker High School. She had applied to 13 colleges, as of late December, ranging from in-state options like Florida Southern College, where she’s already been accepted, to Amherst College, her top choice.
Although the admissions process can stretch from September to late April, Izadi has already had her first heartbreak. In October, she discovered she was a finalist for the QuestBridge program, which helps match low-income students to the college of their choice through the National College Match process. Receiving the email that she was eligible for a nearly $200,000 scholarship made her knees and arms “just go totally weak.”
“I was so excited when I found out,” Izadi said, breathless during the October phone call when QuestBridge was discussed. She had spent the whole day anxiously refreshing her phone, flashing back to the days of snail mail when high school seniors would rush out to the mailbox or attack the postal carrier to see if their admissions letter had arrived.
But in early December, Izadi reached the next step of the QuestBridge process, when applicants learn whether they’ve been matched with another of their schools. Izadi found out that she had not been matched through the program, but would be evaluated through the regular decision process. Her dreams of attending a top school with full tuition provided were now, at least temporarily, dashed. Yet she has not given up hope, and instead turned to the future.
“I really need to go to college and I really want to go,” Izadi said. “I’ve never not wanted to go to college. This is a big year.”
In fact, it has been a big year for Izadi in ways that she could have never anticipated. In May, Izadi’s father, Behzad Izadi, was charged with sexual abuse after three children said he abused them at parties at his home in 2013 and at a rented apartment on Siesta Key last year, according to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. Izadi was arrested May 28 in Sarasota County and is currently in custody at the Sarasota County Jail on an $800,000 bond. Izadi goes to trial in early February, according to court documents.
While Lillee and her two sisters say they were completely surprised by the charges, Izadi’s police reports indicates that one of the victims told one of Izadi’s daughters about the sexual assault and the daughter “was not surprised by the allegation,” the report says.
Since the arrest, Lillee has become the self-appointed “mother” of the household, since their mother lives with them but has never been a provider, Izadi says. Court records show that Izadi’s mother has been charged with multiple counts of drug possession and driving a vehicle in an unsafe condition.
But when Izadi is not contemplating college, she’s thinking about how to provide for her sisters using money from her office job working with a physiatrist in Sarasota and monthly checks that come in from her uncle in Ohio.
Izadi and her sisters maintain their home blocks from Booker High School largely by themselves. In the mornings, Izadi sometimes cooks breakfast for her sisters, and on the weekends, they experiment with steak and chicken. Between those obligations, she manages to feed and take care of their two cats and a dog as well as handle her duties as a Student Council representative. Izadi is far from the typical 17-year-old.
“I kind of had to grow up a little bit faster,” Izadi said as she called her sister’s name and asked her to throw out the yogurt container she had left on the kitchen counter. “I’m more like a mom. A lot of people tell me, ‘Well, you know, you don’t have to do all of that.’ And I say, ‘Okay, well, if I don’t do it, nobody else will.’ I know I don’t have to, but it’s something I prefer to do.”
Things have been hard since Izadi’s father went to jail in May. In November, her sisters moved to Columbus, Ohio, to live with their father’s friend.
Socially, Lillee has had less ramifications, but she’s had to forego some of the typical traditions one might consider quintessentially high school. Days before the homecoming dance, Izadi said she would not attend. Her best friend was going to the dance with her boyfriend, and Izadi didn’t want to “third wheel.”
Still, roam the passageways of Booker with Izadi and it’s clear she has a presence on campus. When she enters the college advising office, the students look up immediately, and many of them wave or say a quick hello. They joke about her Homecoming Week costume, when she dressed up like Cheech of the popular 70s duo “Cheech and Chong.”
At one point, Izadi breaks into raucous laughter as she tells a story about having her things stolen on a trip abroad in Germany. The story itself is not funny: she was by herself in a foreign country for the first time, her father had been arrested only a month earlier, and now all her things were gone. But even in retelling the drama, Izadi could not stop laughing.
“A lot of people ask me about that, ‘Why are you laughing?’ I say, ‘I’m laughing, because it’s hard for me to realize.’ If I were to read in this book, I’d be laughing so hard,” Izadi said. “It’s the kind of stuff that happens in movies. But this is actually my life.”
While most high school students view college with a type of apprehension, fearful but excited by what lies ahead, Izadi is sure anything would be easier than her life now.
“I focus on (college) a lot,” Izadi said. “I really want it to be different, more stable, more fun than my life right now.”
Izadi was 11 when she started dreaming up where she might go to school. After extensive Internet research, she picked Stanford University, a college she says she “fell in love with” because of its diversity and neuroscience program. She hopes to attend medical school and study neuroscience in college, inspired by her mother’s experiences and her interest in pediatrics.
“Growing up, my mom saw a lot of psychiatrists and said, ‘If I had gotten help earlier, I probably wouldn’t have gone down this track with addiction,'” Izadi said. “I hope, in general, to help people and improve the quality of people’s lives in general.”
Izadi will be the first woman in her immediate family to go to college come this fall. She’s not unaware of the significance, and it’s part of the reason she works so hard when success doesn’t always feel imminent.
She’s also blessed with an innate faith that things will get better. Despite all of her hardships and the obstacles she’s had to overcome, Izadi is not bitter. Instead, she’s determined.
“It’s not only the cards you’ve received in your life. Work hard and use the cards you’ve received to win you something better,” Izadi. “I know I could use this an excuse to not do as well as I’m doing right now, but it’s the only way my sisters know how to do things: keep going and keep trying.”