Erick Meza and Debbie Prescott, Executive Director of the Florida Prosperity Partnership–Polk, at the First Lady’s Beating the Odds Summit on July 23rd, 2015

This summer, Erick Meza, Bartow High School’s valedictorian for the class of 2015, attended the Reach Higher “Beating the Odds” Summit, hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama. Erick was one of more than 130 college-bound students from around the country who attended the White House event, which focused on sharing tools and strategies to help more students successfully transition to college and complete their next level of education. The summit brought together recent high school graduates who overcame significant barriers to pursue a college education. Erick, a son of migrant farmworkers, was gracious enough to share his journey with Florida CAN.

From farm fields to Harvard

Last school year, a typical weekday for Erick consisted of going to class, picking up his siblings after school, doing yard work and then studying late into the night. On the weekends, he worked in the fields alongside his parents, migrant farm workers who followed the harvests in Florida and North Carolina. On occasion, he played soccer to get his mind off school and other life stressors. Despite juggling his many responsibilities and frequent moves between states, Erick graduated high school with a 4.837 GPA.

Yet even with his remarkable accomplishments, Erick didn’t think his college pursuits would take him beyond Florida. That changed when Erick noticed that his high-achieving peers were applying to highly selective colleges, some out of state. Through the support of his family, his teachers, and his mentor from the Polk County Migrant Education Program, he expanded his college search.

Erick was elated to receive his first college acceptance in December from Princeton University through the Questbridge program, which links exceptional low-income students with college and scholarship opportunities. He was tempted to accept admission immediately, but he decided to also apply to his other “dream” schools: MIT, Dartmouth, Stanford, Yale, and Harvard. He was accepted to all of them and ultimately chose Harvard.

How Erick is “beating the odds”

In Florida, there are significant disparities between the number of low-income and non-low-income students who attend and complete college. Only 26 of every 100 Florida low-income students who start 9th grade complete high school and acquire one year’s worth of college credits within two years, compared to 47 of 100 of their non low-income peers. In Polk County, where Erick attended high school, these rates are even lower: only 16 of 100 low-income high school students achieve early success in college.

In spite of his outstanding achievements, Erick doesn’t see himself as special or any different from other students. He believes that other students can achieve their dreams just like he did if they believe in themselves, work hard, and have the support of caring and knowledgeable adults. He gives a lot of credit for his success to teachers like Bartow High’s Peggy Frisbie and Chris Guice, as well as his mentor, Dani Torres.

Ms. Torres, a migrant advocate housed at Mulberry Middle School, encouraged Erick to dream big and guided him through the college application process. She is all too familiar with the challenges that low-income and first-generation students face while navigating the college search and application process.

“Not every student is going to a university, but I make sure every student has a postsecondary plan, be it at a state college or vocational school. I make a point to have these conversations with them because they may not have them at home.”

Torres is thrilled about Erick’s accomplishments and has already made plans to invite him to speak to other migrant students about his journey. “Erick is one of the most humble students I’ve ever met, that’s what makes this so exciting.”

Erick Meza tries out the desk of U.S. Senator Bill Nelson in Washington D.C.

White House event opens doors for Erick and other students

What stood out most to Erick at the First Lady’s summit was being in a room of students who, like him, faced significant challenges, yet still found a way to attend college.  The summit gathered together a wide variety of students from diverse backgrounds who showed determination to enter college in spite of the challenges they’ve experienced.

“There were a lot more students like myself who were achieving good things despite unfavorable circumstances,” he noted.

During the summit, the First Lady spoke about financial aid, civic and political engagement, and overcoming failure. She emphasized the importance of learning to bounce back from failure and asking for help when needed. Her advice spoke to Erick and is similar to the advice he has for other students who feel as though they do not have what it takes to succeed.

“[Discouragement] is there, but shouldn’t be a determining force in stopping somebody,” the wise 18-year-old noted.

Also while in D.C., Erick, accompanied by Debbie Prescott of the Florida Prosperity Partnership, met with the staffs of Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio to discuss the importance of expanding college opportunities for those who are less fortunate.  Erick also had the chance to attend a Harvard alumni gathering, where he gained new friends and learned more of what to expect upon his arrival at Harvard.

Erick has completed the trek north and his first week of classes at Harvard. Florida College Access Network wishes Erick and college students everywhere from Florida the best of luck!


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