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Blessing In Disguise

Raye Cheng, a 2018 graduate of San Marino High School, speaking at the city’s Memorial Day.

Next week, Raye Cheng will acknowledge a very important anniversary in his life, but it’s doubtful he will be cutting cake or opening gifts on Tuesday, April 2. Under ordinary circumstances, April 2 would be among the more important dates in the life of Cheng. But these circumstances are everything but normal for the 2018 graduate of San Marino High School, who a year ago committed to the United States Military Academy at West Point. 

Cheng was one of just 1,200 from an applicant pool of over 12,300 who received the prestigious acceptance letters. 

What followed was three months of celebration. Cheng gave a memorable address as a keynote speaker at San Marino’s acknowledgement of Memorial Day in Lacy Park. A loud roar went up from the crowd in Titan Stadium when he graduated on June 1. Later that evening, he received further kudos from his classmates at Grad Night. After spending much of his youth trailing behind his peers in physical height—Cheng entered his sophomore year at SMHS standing less than five feet tall—things were looking up for the son of Charlene and Ted Cheng. 

For West Point’s incoming class of 2022, Monday, July 2 was what is known as Reception Day, where parents and family members spent their final few minutes with the plebes before the regiment of physical training begins. Cheng said his traditional goodbyes and headed towards what he expected to be the next nine years of his life. But his experience in the United States Army didn’t even last five hours.

Raye Cheng, shortly after his commitment to West Point.

Between his initial medical clearance and the time he showed up at West Point for admission, Cheng had visited a hospital emergency room as the result of an allergic reaction. 

“One of the stipulations of our admission was that we were required to report any hospital visits or changes in our medical condition to our regional commander,” Cheng said recently, reflecting on the fateful day. The day after he visited the emergency room in Ontario following a soccer game, Cheng reached out to the Far West Regional Commander and told him what had happened. Weeks later, as he approached the final screening area, he was pulled aside.

“They were waiting for me,” Cheng said, in a tone of acceptance that is still unexpected. 

He was sent directly to a designated medical area, where a team of doctors reviewed his file. Cheng was placed on medical hold while their suggestions were forwarded to the admissions team. 

“I was taken out of the room and told by the admissions director ‘sorry, we can’t admit you,’” Cheng said. “My mom, brother and another family member came back to get me. I was at West Point for a total of about five hours.”

This nation’s military academies have a zero tolerance approach to physical ailments, according to a source with knowledge of the system, closing the door on Cheng’s career before it was really even opened.

Cheng immediately went from a young man who had every single second planned for him to one of the most unstructured souls on the planet. Two of his high school friends, classmates and volleyball teammates—Brandon Wong and Billy Tsai—were playing in a tournament in Arizona.

“I took the most spontaneous flight of my life,” Cheng said. “I even played a point.”

That experience provided a temporary highlight, but when Cheng returned to San Marino, his world was clouded in doubt. 

“It was really rough,” he said in retrospect. “Going from having at least the next nine years of my life figured out to having nothing figured out. It was quite the flip. It was tough to get my bearings. I was lost and confused. I went into a funk.”

Cheng had heard of a previous San Marino High School graduate who experienced a similar situation and had decided to immediately take an EMT course. Cheng followed suit.

“I didn’t know what I was doing and I had to do something,” Cheng said. 

Though his thoughts often became dark, Cheng quickly looked for the positive, as he had for several years as a member of San Marino High School’s soccer and volleyball teams. 

“I could have held a grudge, but that would have been a waste of energy,” he said. “Everyone has lows, but it’s a matter of picking yourself up and continually moving forward.”

Raye Cheng, coaching volleyball at SMHS. Mitch Lehman Photos

San Marino High School Athletic Director David Irie told Raye there was an opening for an assistant volleyball coach.

“I figured I would just apply and see what happens,” Cheng said. To nobody’s surprise, he is now Tony Chou’s assistant and takes special pleasure in helping out with the junior varsity squad. 

He has repeated the college application process and is waiting on decisions—again. 

“It’s a lot worse the second time,” Cheng said with a laugh. “This is a horrendous process and I had to do it all over again.”

He is hoping to receive an acceptance letter from a school on the East Coast. Raye’s brother, Ryan, is a junior at Yale and member of the Bulldog’s tennis team, but Raye was not accepted to join him in New Haven. 

“To be honest, I don’t really mind much where I end up because I believe I will be successful anywhere I go,” Raye said. “I know now more than ever that it’s not where I go that matters, it’s who I am and what I do.”

 Part of the essay on Raye’s college application deals with his disqualification from West Point. But that’s just the beginning of the list of lessons Raye has learned the past year. 

He called the West Point chapter of his life “a blessing I disguise.

“In society right now, we have a stigma around mental health,” Cheng said. “During this gap year I have really been able to take care of my emotional and mental health. I have never been as happy and as satisfied as I am now and I am even getting better by the day. I have been very lucky to have a loving community around me and it has helped me a lot. I am very, very young and a year in the grand scheme of things isn’t going to be that big of a deal. I had always been taking care of myself physically, but not so much emotionally and mentally. Before my gap year, I always believed in athletics and takin care of myself physically. Now I am much more conscious of taking care of myself holistically, including intellectually, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I now see that this gap year has helped breed this happiness I have and it has increased my confidence and desire to help others.” 

On a challenge from lone of his soccer coaches, Cheng created a YouTube channel and Instagram page to share his story. Cheng said that he has been contacted by many who want to hear his West Point story and how he has dealt with adversity. 

“I want to have a lasting effect on the world,” Cheng said. “I get to look back on my life and see what I did and I know that my experiences can also help other people. If they can learn something from my experience, that’s great.”

A young lady from Northern California reached out to Raye and he helped her with her application to West Point. 

“I just found out she got accepted,” he said with pride. 

He is also enjoying his coaching duties. 

“When I came back from West Point I realized that there was a reason I was back in my hometown,” he said.

Cheng said he was bullied during his early high school years and developed in him what he calls “an angry confidence.”

“I didn’t feel like I was enough,” he said. “This gap year has helped me explore my faith and the blessings I have been given. I feel it has changed from an angry confidence to a healthy confidence.” 

He wants to be the sort of mentor he needed as a young teenager. 

“While my brother was being recruited to play tennis at Yale, I was being bullied and playing video games,” Cheng explained. “I had some self-esteem problems, hence my drive to prove people wrong. Looking back, I had built up walls. When you are younger, the walls protect you but the walls also isolated me. It didn’t feel like anyone was there for me. Whether they were or not, that is how I felt. A mentor could have really helped and that has driven me to be a role model in this community. I have been really lucky and I want to give back. I want to be the light of hope for that kid who is like me, but just needed someone to believe in them.”

Who knew someone could learn so much at West Point and never make it past the front door.

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