Yesterday was decision day, when tens of thousands of high-school seniors must commit to a college. Malia Obama, the president’s daughter, is headed to Harvard University after a gap year.
Another student at the nation’s most esteemed university will be MariaVictoria Paredes — a Cuban émigré who came to the United States when she was only 3 years old. She has overcome plenty of obstacles in life and recently jumped one more hurtle. The high-school senior was accepted to not only Harvard but also Barnard College, Boston University, University of Miami, and University of Florida, as well as two other Ivy Leagues: Columbia and Brown.
"I honestly didn't think that I was going to get into Harvard," Paredes says over the phone. "Aside from having the grades and the SAT score, Harvard is just something so elusive I never thought it could happen. I would tell my mom that I wished I could give her the gift of getting in because she deserved it."
The teenager's parents left Cuba with their two young children and came to America to build a better life. And build is exactly what they did. On the island, Paredes' mother was a psychologist by trade. Now she and her husband run their own successful construction company. But, of course, things weren't always easy.
"There were times when we didn't have any internet at my house, and the four of us — my parents and younger brother — would go to McDonald's to use their Wi-Fi and do homework," Paredes laments. "They would literally turn the lights off on us."
Those struggles never deterred her from her dream of getting into college and becoming a doctor. "When I was younger, my mother would always tell me that I would go to Harvard one day." It was the one university synonymous with the American dream, she says. "Those were the hardest and happiest years of our lives; it was never easy, but we were always happy."
Jokingly, she compares her motivation for applying to that of the lead character in the popular Reese Witherspoon movie. "I had seen Legally Blonde, and I wanted the Chihuahua, I wanted to get into Harvard, and I wanted the blond hair.
"I got the Chihuahua, I got into Harvard, but I still don't have the blond hair," she says. Paredes says she wanted to get into the Cambridge school for her family.
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The day she read the acceptance email is one she will never forget. That morning, she drove her brother to school and played "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina & the Waves on the car stereo. She knew Harvard was letting applicants know yea or nay that day, so she wanted only positive vibes surrounding her. After school, she stood in line and bought her ticket to her senior prom. Then, at 5 p.m., she nervously refreshed her email.
"As soon as I read it, the first thing that came out of my mouth was 'no,' and then I started screaming," she said with a laugh.
Although she missed Harvard's visiting weekend, she visited the 380-year-old school with her mom a week later. While she rebuilds her wardrobe for a Northeast climate, Paredes plans to spend the summer with her family and volunteering at the Miami-Dade Animal Services location on 7401 NW 74th St. "It will be difficult for me to leave my family," she says, "but I hope my story inspires others.
"I was often dismissed, discriminated against, and ignored. Even at my own school, I was never recognized — despite having the third-highest GPA. So for anyone who is facing a similar prejudice, I want them to know that nothing can stop you. If you want something, it's there for the taking."