When he first arrived in the U.S. from Mexico, Luis Govea knew only a few English words, including red, white, blue and apple.
Six years later, he’s been named Irving High School’s valedictorian and got to pick from full-ride scholarships from Yale, Harvard, Rice, Stanford, Dartmouth, the California Institute of Technology and Princeton.
“I applied and thought, ‘I got nothing to lose,’ ” said Luis, who will head to Stanford in the fall. “I never saw myself even last year choosing between those schools, and it’s a beautiful feeling.”
He won the scholarships through QuestBridge, a program that matches high-achieving students from low-income families with selective schools.
Gerardo Govea, Luis’ father, said he knew his family needed a better opportunity for education than what Mexico offered, so he and his wife legally moved their two children to Texas in 2010. They were legal residents and became U.S. citizens in 2015.
“He reaches things that a lot of kids can’t reach, and I feel lucky he has the opportunities at the biggest schools,” Gerardo said. “I only see those school names on TV. I didn’t think I would look at those right in front of my eyes.”
Luis’ aunt, Sarah Moreno, had a huge impact on his life, and he couldn’t thank her enough, he said. She took him for ice cream when he did well on his school work. At the end of the year, she’d buy him bigger things, such as a Game Boy Advance.
“I still have it. It’s a connection to my aunt even if it doesn’t work anymore,” Luis said. Moreno died of cancer at the age of 21 just six months after the Goveas moved to Texas.
His aunt was charismatic and humble, two traits Luis’ teachers say he has, as well.
“I hope someone sees my story, and it pushes them to try even harder,” Luis said. “Do your best; even if you fail, at least you tried. That’s my motto.”
When he first arrived in the U.S., he attended Johnson Middle School and learned English primarily through Rosetta Stone programs on school computers.
He was shy because he was afraid others would make fun of him for his accent, he said.
Then one day he came home with scratches and marks on his body from another student.
“I told him, ‘We are all the same and we’re all humans, and I don’t want anyone to hurt you,’” Gerardo Govea said. “Keep going and keep looking forward. I’m going to work as hard as we can and do what we can do for him.”
Irving High counselor Laura Zimmer said Luis’ parents have been instrumental to his success.
“I’ve never seen a student like him, and I’ve been teaching for 13 years,” Zimmer said. “When he got the letter from QuestBridge that day, he just sat there and he just cried because he was so happy. He’s not afraid of anything.”
Zimmer first met Luis during his sophomore year when he asked her for a list of clubs. He joined 20, from French club to Keep Irving Beautiful.
“He wants to be a part of everything, but he doesn’t feel the need to be in the limelight,” Zimmer said. “He’s very genuine, and he’s always smiling.”
Luis was on the academic decathlon team, and he was the first in school history to make it to the state competition, coach James Newman said.
“He never let any of us down, and then once he realized that we had complete 100 percent confidence in him, he took on the leadership role, especially this year as a senior,” Newman said. “It’s been an unbelievable journey with Luis, and I am so proud of him. I really am excited about this next chapter in his life.”
Luis is a National AP Scholar and has taken 20 AP exams, earning nine perfect scores of 5 and three scores of 4. He’s awaiting results of this year’s tests.
After poring over pamphlets, websites and lists of majors, Luis thought heavily about Princeton but changed his mind to Yale.
Then, late on May 1, the deadline to commit to a school, he was hovering over the “accept” button for Yale when a Facebook message popped up from a freshman at Stanford. They chatted for two hours, and Luis decided California was where he wanted to be — close to Silicon Valley.
Luis wrote at least 40 essays in the past year for scholarships on topics including chess, tacos, hamburgers, underwear, love letters and his journey from Mexico to the U.S.
He plans on majoring in bioengineering and computer science, and he said he hopes to become a researcher or a professor.
“People come up to me and say, ‘I want to be like you someday,’” Luis said. “I’m just a normal student, but those people make me so happy that I can actually influence others.”
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