Las Vegas Sun

April 18, 2019

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Colombian immigrant at Clark High is living his American dream


Wade Vandervort

Questbridge Scholarship winner Pablo Alarcon, poses for a photo at Clark High School, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018.

Pablo Alarcon thought he was visiting Las Vegas for vacation and anticipated returning to his family in Colombia. But his mother had other ideas. They we relocating here.

A few days later, 8-year-old Alarcon started elementary school. He spoke little English, was lonely, confused and desperate for a friend. But he was also intelligent — so advanced that he was already excelling in middle-school classes in Colombia.

“It was a shock. I didn’t like it at all,” he said of his introduction to schools in Las Vegas. “I felt like an alien and different than everyone else.”

He wound up learning English in six months. He almost instantly continued to excel in the classroom.

Nine years later, Alarcon is at the top of his class in Clark High School’s challenging Academy of Math, Science, the Arts, and Technology magnet program. He’s proud to claim that he’s never received a grade lower than an A in mostly honors classes, even in those earlier years in Las Vegas when he was learning the language.

This past week that excellence led to his American dream: Alarcon received a full scholarship to Rice University from QuestBridge, whose National College Match program pairs high-achieving students from families with limited resources with prestigious universities.

• • •

Alarcon is anxiously sitting in front of the computer in one of his classes at Clark waiting to learn if he was selected by QuestBridge. His friends are behind him in support and know what is at stake — the scholarship covers tuition, room and board, books, transportation and spending money.

Alarcon hit refresh on his application to receive the life-changing news. He was paired with Rice University, a scholarship valued at $267,000 over four years, giving him access to one of the nation’s leading institutions to start his journey toward becoming a dentist, just like his mom was in Colombia. He’ll study biochemistry.

He became emotional in joy. He was realizing the sacrifice of leaving his homeland, and the sacrifice of his working-class mother, was well worth it. His friends mobbed him in celebration.

Alarcon could have easily stopped going to class or studying along the way, and he would have had a great excuse for slacking off. But he was determined to not waste his opportunity.

“Everything I have worked for has come to fruition,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

Alarcon, who is one of Clark’s national merit scholarship finalists, is also on track to be the Clark valedictorian. With that honor comes speaking at graduation — something he’s already preparing for.

“His story is a big deal. The story is what sets him apart,” said Michele Hernandez, magnet program coordinator at Clark who helped Alarcon through the application process. “He says, ‘I want to speak to my classmates, speak to my peers to tell them I came from Colombia with nothing and got to this point. You can, too.’”

• • •

He walked into the third-grade classroom at Roger Bryan Elementary School and only noticed a few other Hispanic students. And those children spoke a different dialect of Spanish, furthering Alarcon’s sentiment of being alone. “I felt very isolated. I felt that nobody wanted to help me,” he said.

But there’s been an educator or two along the way who went above and beyond, especially Michelle Foucault, one of Alarcon’s elementary school teachers. Foucault took the time to make him feel welcome, which started to build his comfort level.

Alarcon also started reading for long hours, devouring the “Harry Potter” series and “Lord of the Rings.” When he reached fifth grade, he registered a near-flawless score on a criterion-referenced test, even excelling on the English portion of the exam. More important, he started to accept his situation of being in a strange country and school, taking his mother’s advice to make the best of the situation and not waste his intelligence.

“He was crying every day when doing his homework because he didn’t realize why all this was happening,” said Claudia Ritholz, his mother. “He had good values from Colombia. I would tell him to keep doing his homework and everything would work out.”

• • •

Alarcon was an impressionable child. He would spend his days with Ritholz at her dentist office, watching how she interacted with patients and saying at a young age that he wanted to follow in her footsteps. Ritholz works as a dental assistant in Las Vegas because her licenses from Colombia don’t cross over.

“As a little boy, he would look over my shoulder and see how I was working,” Ritholz said.

She gave up her life in Colombia to give her son more opportunities here and has been determined to make sure he doesn’t waste them. Alarcon has been pleading to get a part-time job for spending money, but she refuses and says his only job is to study.

The theory worked: The scholarship, which includes spending money, has an annual value of $66,500.

“I would tell him, ‘Pablo, this is an opportunity for you. I will work hard for your goal,’” Ritholz said.

Ritholz said she loves her country “but couldn’t close her eyes to the reality” that the opportunities in Las Vegas gave her son a more clear path to take advantage of his intelligence.

“All I had to do is follow the path that’s been created for me and keep working hard,” Alarcon said.

• • •

Alarcon was the highest achieving student in his elementary school class and at Lawrence Middle School. Then he arrived at Clark, whose highly competitive magnet program is one of Nevada’s most challenging.

There’s about 150 students per grade in magnet studies at the school. They are competitive with each other, and yet, supportive at the same time. It was the perfect setting for Alarcon to get the most out of his skill set.

Clark will have about 15 valedictorians from the program; 25 are national merit finalists. Another student, Ian Alexander, was paired with Northwestern in the QuestBridge match program, to give the school two of the group’s roughly 1,000 recipients nationwide.

“Getting straight A’s (at Clark) is a feat in itself,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said the diversity in the program mirrors the diversity in Clark County School District, bringing together students from all walks of life and backgrounds. Alarcon suddenly went from being the outsider from a foreign land to, like his classmates, being a student with ambitions for a career in science or engineering. Students are picked for the magnet in a lottery, meaning it was “divine intervention” for Alarcon to join the school, Hernandez said.

“I feel like myself now,” he said.