Wandering the winding streets of historical Cambridge, Mass., Ricky Diaz entered the bustling center of activity known as Harvard Square last weekend, stopping to soak in the place he'll call home for the next four years.
"There are a ton of little shops, and then you look off to the side and see all these amazingly old but beautiful red brick buildings where the college is," he said. "Day and night, there's so much life there."
Ricardo Diaz Jr.Age: 18
School: Addison Trail High School
Who inspires you? My parents inspire me so much. What they have done for me is amazing. They inspire me in that I see how hard they work and see how hard I need to work to succeed.
What's on your iPod? I really like intelligent and real rap. Eminem, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Lupe Fiasco and K'naan. I also like Jason Mraz and certain Lil Wayne and Drake (even if that is a little hypocritical of me).
What book are you reading? I really like Malcolm Gladwell's books like "Outliers." Also I just finished "The Kite Runner," which was great. "Life of Pi" was a great book too. I plan to jump on the bandwagon and read "The Hunger Games" soon.
The three words that best describe you? Motivated, fun and honest
That moment during his pre-frosh orientation was 14 years in the making, though the Addison Trail High School senior -- the son of Mexican immigrants and the first in his family to go to college -- doesn't necessarily remember.
His mother, Josefina Diaz, said Ricky was about 5 years old when they were in the car listening to a Spanish-speaking radio program. A caller began talking about Harvard University, prompting questions from her inquisitive son.
"He said, 'What is Harvard?' So I said it is the most difficult and prestigious school you can find and that presidents went there," she recalled. "And he said, 'One day, Mom, I'm going to go to Harvard.'"
Ricky, now 18, took his mom's advice and applied his unyielding work ethic to everything he took on, from his rigorous course load to activities that include serving as Addison Trail's National Honor Society president and the varsity basketball team's starting center.
Ricky, whose GPA is 4.74, figured working hard was the least he could do given his parents' humble origins in a small town outside Durango in central Mexico.
With no family awaiting him and hardly a possession to his name, his father, Ricardo Diaz, came to the Chicago area barely a teenager.
"When I was 15, I was doing homework for AP Euro (Advanced Placement European History class)," Ricky said. "I can't imagine dropping everything to start over 2,000 miles away."
Ricky hopes his parents know that he doesn't take their sacrifices for granted.
"My mom and dad have worked so hard to help me and my sister, and it inspires me day in, day out," Ricky said. "I want to push my self as hard as I can to show them the values they've instilled in me mean something."
Ricky's peers obviously recognize his commitment, electing him both NHS president and Student Council treasurer. In those roles, he's organized various service projects including an upcoming trip to the Feed My Starving Children warehouse in Schaumburg, where 30 students will help assemble meals to be shipped to malnourished kids around the globe.
He joined two buddies to co-host Addison Trail's elaborate Homecoming pep rally last fall, showing off his acting skills in skits for the entire student body and faculty.
Ricky also started at center for Blazers basketball, which proved a tremendous mental challenge given the team's less-than-stellar record.
"I don't think I've been the absolute best leader, but all those experiences taught me how to be a better one," said Ricky, who also volunteers weekly at Adventist GlenOaks Hospital. "I'm very grateful for that."
Another life experience that helped shape Ricky was his involvement in Addison's foreign exchange program with Triggiano, Italy, the village's Sister City.
He twice was selected to participate, his most recent 11-day trip coming junior year.
He initially used his fluent Spanish to get by abroad, but quickly picked up the Italian language and now hones it in his AP Italian class.
Though he enjoyed the touristy excursions to sites in Rome and Florence, Ricky said what really stuck with him was living with host families in the southern part of the country.
"You get to see the people, talk to the people, eat with the people, and of course everyone was an amazing cook," Ricky said. "It definitely sparked a passion in me to see the world."
Looking ahead to next year, Ricky plans to dabble in a little of everything but could see himself majoring in economics, a subject that combines his love of math with more real-life applications. He's considering a career in investment banking.
Though he wraps up high school with few regrets, Ricky does wish he had gone easier on himself and made room in his hectic schedule for a little more fun and relationships.
"I know Harvard will be crazy hard, but I think it's more about the people and connections you make," Ricky said. "That's what I want to come away with."
• Kimberly Pohl wrote today's column. She and Elena Ferrarin always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.