Risk, Difficulty, and Ganas: U.S. Presidential Scholar Gabby Escalante
Gabby Escalante had a good spring.
The high school senior, attending St. Mary’s Hall in San Antonio, was accepted to Harvard University and was one of a select group of high school students honored as a U.S. Presidential Scholar.
Gabby, however, hasn’t just been a distinguished high school student; she is an NHI alumna who understands the importance of community and her potentiality as a leader. She was a lead attorney at the 2015 Texas Lorenzo De Zavala Youth Legislative Session (where she won 1st place in the Supreme Court competition among attorneys defending the constitutionality of student legislation, and also won the Best Orator of the Supreme Court award. She also attended the 2015 Celebración in Dallas.
Gabby spoke to us about her recent honors, her involvement with NHI, and her plans for the future.
How did you learn about NHI?
A few of my friends had done the Texas LDZ program and loved it. They really introduced me to NHI and encouraged me to join!
What, ultimately, made you decide to come to the LDZ program?
I decided to attend the LDZ program because I wanted to surround myself with individuals who care about their communities like I do. I wanted to challenge myself to think creatively about issues that affect our generation and future generations.
What were you expecting from the LDZ program when you first arrived?
I was expecting LDZ to be similar to a mock-government program, but on the first day, I was not really sure what to expect. There’s a mystique around LDZ, and when the students would ask the counselors what we would be doing, they would just reply, “This is your LDZ experience. You’ll find out!”
What happened once you got to LDZ? What in particular surprised you and challenged you?
When I got to LDZ, I was sent to a large, open gym along with all the other students. We introduced ourselves to one another through bonding games, worked together in team-building exercises, and did creative problem-solving activities. I remember my team used our bodies to form a sturdy table, and we also built a tall house out of cards. The program was very dynamic, and each day was packed with lots of activities and hard work! Later in the program, I was surprised by all the freedom we were given to design our own government, including the judicial and Supreme Court system. I was an attorney, which was challenging in itself because the judicial system was a competition among the attorneys to defend the constitutionality of student legislation. As lead attorney, I won 1st place with my amazing partner José Torrealba, and we went undefeated in all of our trials. I also won the Best Orator of the Supreme Court Award!
This experience was my first exposure to debate and litigation. My strengths had always been in math, science, and music, and I hadn’t previously been involved with political or judicial activities, but I embraced the challenge! My inexperience with litigation was actually what attracted me to the judicial branch, because I wanted to gain a new skill and grow confidence in an area in which I had little experience. I really have to thank Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez and George Rodriguez for inspiring me to make the most of my LDZ experience, motivating me with their pep talks, and building my confidence before the final trial. They were true role models, and I can’t thank them enough for this experience.
What were the most important lessons you learned from LDZ?
Embrace challenges, and never be afraid to speak up. LDZ was designed to encourage us to step outside our comfort zones. Litigating at the final public trial in a huge auditorium was definitely nerve-wracking, but it was worth it! I also learned that speaking up is the only way to spread valuable ideas and generate thought-provoking discussions. If we don’t vocalize our thoughts, we cannot move forward.
When did you know you wanted to go to Harvard?
My mother would always tell me that knowledge is the only possession we truly own. Our physical belongings can be taken away from us, but what we hold in our minds is ours to keep forever. “Nobody can ever take away what you’ve learned,” my mom tells me. This way of thinking is the reason I value education so much. I see Harvard as an opportunity to expand my worldview and gain something truly valuable — knowledge.
Harvard is probably one of the best-known universities in the world, so I grew up knowing about its tradition of excellence, but I didn’t seriously consider it as a possibility until the summer before my senior year of high school. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to Harvard and several other wonderful colleges, so it was a tough decision. I made my final decision after attending Harvard’s “Visitas” program for admitted students, where I got to meet my future classmates and see the programs up-close. Since I am drawn to math and science, I was particularly impressed by the strong biology and biomedical engineering programs. One aspect of the Harvard culture that caught my attention was the energy of the student body. All the students seemed to be passionate about many subjects and involved in many activities. As someone with many interests, I felt that I could get a top-notch education while staying involved with music groups, dance groups, community service, medical research, and even a student-run Emergency Medical Services group. I have always wanted to be helpful in emergency situations, and Harvard’s Crimson EMS is definitely a group I hope to join!
What was the application process like, and what surprised you most about it?
The college application process is different for everyone. My experience was pretty unique, because I was going through a tough personal event that left me with little motivation to write essays or think introspectively. Eventually I pushed through and did my best to pace myself so that I could write all the essays. As time passed, I was surprised by the fact that the essay-writing process was somewhat therapeutic. The essay prompts were all geared toward self-reflection, which I used as an opportunity to peer inside of myself and use my creativity.
What does it mean exactly to be a Presidential Scholar — what is it, what did you do to earn it, and what does it mean for you to be one?
The U.S. Department of Education started the program in 1964 as a way to bring national recognition to the country’s most talented high school students. Two students are chosen based on academic merit from among high school seniors in each state, one man and one woman. In addition, a few more are chosen based on artistic merit, or excellence in technical schools for a total of 161 U.S. Presidential Scholars in the nation. The odds of being chosen are really low, and I am sure that there are many qualified people that would be as deserving as me but who didn’t get chosen. Texas is a big state and it is more competitive, so I had to have a perfect SAT score to be chosen as a candidate. Candidates then filled out an application with many essays where we describe all our academic and extracurricular activities, honors and awards, challenges, and inspirations. From there, the candidates are narrowed down to semifinalists and then to the Scholars. I filled out the application staying true to myself, and I think it was my honesty that helped me receive the award! Being chosen as a U.S. Presidential Scholar is a great honor and an even greater responsibility. The program is designed to recognize our country’s future leaders, so I feel a great duty to uphold that responsibility and strive for excellence while making the world a better place. I am extremely honored and humbled to have been chosen as a U.S. Presidential Scholar, and to become a member of such a distinguished group.
NHI sees college as part of an overall training process that helps prepare students to become leaders — what do you feel Harvard will specifically do to help you in that, and how do you think you might utilize what you learn at Harvard to supplement what you learned at NHI?
Harvard has a track record of training leaders in a wide variety of fields. I am interested in the biomedical sciences and engineering, and hope to become a physician. There are many ways in which a physician who is also a biomedical scientist can be a leader. Most important, in my opinion, is excellence in one’s chosen field, and I believe Harvard will equip me for that. At Harvard I will encounter many people who are aiming for excellence in their fields, and having this network of leaders on whom to rely for collaboration, advice and mutual support will also be valuable.
My main goal is to become a leader in the field of biomedical research, aiming to find cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s or other currently refractory diseases. I see medicine as a calling to help others, make discoveries, and find cures for diseases. At Harvard, I will take advantage of the abundant research and volunteer opportunities available to positively impact those around me. Harvard also attracts a diverse student body, and I hope that by being exposed to so many people of different backgrounds, lifestyles, and experiences, I can broaden my perspective, cultivate my compassion, and understand others’ viewpoints. Expanding my realm of knowledge in this way will prepare me to be responsive to the needs of others, an important skill both in leadership and in medicine. At NHI, I learned to seek out challenges, a skill that will be critical in my Harvard experience, since any opportunity I take will require risk, difficulty, and ganas!