Midori Naolu

A Head-Start on College Life: Presidential Scholar Midori Naolu

The Presidential Scholarship is among the top awards an incoming Georgia State student can receive. In addition to covering full tuition, fees and on-campus housing for four years, it provides stipends for living expenses and study-abroad programs. It also includes automatic acceptance to Georgia State’s Honors College, which offers smaller classes, specialized advising and unique research opportunities. As you read about each of this year’s 10 recipients — the largest class ever — you will see that they earned the Presidential Scholarship with more than just good grades and test scores. Their diverse interests, independent ideas and dedication to service are great assets with the potential to make a real impact — not only on Georgia State’s campus but throughout the Atlanta community.


There were plenty of nervous-looking freshmen roaming Georgia State’s campus when fall semester began Aug. 24, but despite having graduated from Duluth High School only three months ago, Midori Naolu wasn’t one of them. After spending her senior year of high school dual-enrolled at Georgia State, she already had the lay of the land.

“It was difficult,” she says, “but I am very glad that I went through with that program. It taught me a lot, in the sense that I feel like I’m going into ‘actual college’ knowing a lot more than I would otherwise. I feel eased in rather than just plopped down into a brand-new campus.”

With the familiarization process already taken care of, Naolu has been able to turn her attention to other things, particularly exploring the perks of her Presidential Scholarship — such as the opportunities available through the Honors College — and taking full advantage of everything there is to do in downtown Atlanta.

A Well-Traveled Family

Even before she became dual-enrolled, Georgia State was something of a known quantity for Naolu: “My father and an aunt went to Georgia State for their undergraduate studies, so I’d always heard of Georgia State,” she says.

While Naolu was born and raised in the Atlanta area, her parents are from Laos, members of the Hmong ethnic minority that currently numbers between 4 and 5 million people across southeast Asia. They left Laos for France during the Vietnam War, then moved to Minnesota — still home to one of the largest Hmong communities in the U.S. — before settling in Georgia.

Naolu is one of only a few million people worldwide who can still speak some of the Hmong language, though not as well as she used to, she says. “When I was younger, I was very, very fluent because I spent all my time with my grandparents,” she says. “Once I went to preschool, I lost it a bit, and now I’m trying to learn a little of it back. It’s hard, just because English and the Hmong tongue are so different.”

Naolu says she grew up fascinated with her mother’s work as a pharmacist. “I would always be amazed how whenever I was sick, she would give me medicine, and I’d get better. So I always wanted to go into medicine and work with kids.” When it came time to look for a college where she could get that career started, she looked at a few places in Atlanta, but always gravitated back toward Georgia State.

“Georgia State is right down the street from the state Capitol and Grady Memorial Hospital, and I really liked that,” she says. “I really wanted to be in the center of a very active, busy place.”

A Taste of Things to Come

Naolu’s wish was granted early when she started attending classes at Georgia State in the fall of 2014, three days a week. The commute from Duluth to downtown Atlanta was a long one, she says, but she usually drove to the Chamblee MARTA station and rode the train to campus, or hitched a ride with her dad on the days he was working downtown.

“I loved the experience of getting the feel of college life,” she says. “It was very different from high school — you’re on your own schedule. And I felt like I developed some really good relationships with some of the people there.”

There were times, though, when she says it did feel a little isolating to be a high-schooler surrounded by college students. “I felt like I was in this limbo sometimes, being at Georgia State and still wanting to do high-school stuff, but I couldn’t.” On her off days, she says, when she wasn’t binge-watching “Breaking Bad” or “House of Cards,” she’d frequently swing back by her high school to attend club meetings or catch up with her old teachers.

“I still kept up with all of my clubs, and even if I couldn’t go to meetings, my officers understood why,” Naolu says. “And I went to all of the senior events — I attended graduation, I got to go to prom, I was able to do all the extracurricular activities. The only thing I really regretted was that I had to give up orchestra. That was something I really loved.”

Opportunities Around Every Corner

Now that she doesn’t have to divide her attention between two different places, though, Naolu says she’s interested in picking up where she left off with music. “It might be too difficult to balance orchestra with classes, but honestly I wouldn’t mind, because I have been itching to go back to my instruments,” she says.

Naolu started playing the violin in the sixth grade, and once she’d gotten proficient at that, she taught herself to play the piano. She adds that she also bought a guitar recently, “and it’s just sitting in a corner of my room looking pretty. I really would like to join a club or maybe even an ensemble and play again, because that was a big part of my life and I still want to continue with it.”

One of the things she’s most looking forward to about being a full-time Georgia State student is enjoying music not only as a performer but also as an audience member. “I’d really like to go see the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra,” she says. “I’ve never been able to go to any of those performances or shows downtown because it was just too far going from here in Duluth to Atlanta. But I’ve been looking for tickets to something I could go to soon. Recently they had ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ down here, and it’s those kind of opportunities that I want to be able to take.”

Naolu, who’s made regular trips to France to visit relatives who still live there, is also looking forward to the study-abroad opportunities she’ll have as a Presidential Scholar. Barcelona, Spain, and Seoul, South Korea, are the two cities currently occupying the top of her list.

Of course, with a year at Georgia State under her belt before she was even officially a freshman, Naolu could always graduate early. But she says she’ll worry about that decision later.

“I might spend time taking some fun classes that aren’t directly related to my major, because I’ve wanted to take that opportunity for a while,” she says. “I think that when it gets to that time where I’m kind of in that ‘limbo’ again, I’ll just see how I feel.”


Previous 2015 Presidential Scholars: Maggie Hunt.