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Article updated: 2/14/2013 5:58 AM

'Drive to be successful' leads Elgin High teen to Stanford

By Kimberly Pohl Elena Ferrarin

Elgin High School senior Eduardo Perez walks around with a backpack filled with all of his notebooks, for all of his classes.

If you peek inside the bulky, 34-pound bag, you'll see everything neatly divided by color -- green for math, yellow for English, blue for physics, and so on.

Color-coordination, a trick the 18-year-old learned in elementary school, is among the habits that helped Eduardo earn a four-year scholarship to Stanford University.

The achievement of landing a full ride to one of the world's top universities is made even more impressive by the fact Eduardo is the first of his Mexican immigrant family to go to college.

"I've always been a perfectionist. That helps a lot," said Eduardo, of Hanover Park. "It doesn't settle with me not to do the best I can. I guess you could call it a drive to be successful."

Eduardo is the president of his school's National Honor Society chapter, a member of the French National Honors Society, and a three-year recipient of the Rotary Club Award for straight As. He is among the top 10 academic students in the class of 2013.

Far from being single-tracked, Eduardo also is a talented athlete.

He was voted captain of the Elgin High School varsity soccer team each of the last two years and is on the school's varsity track and swimming teams.

This year, Eduardo was among a group of students instrumental in bringing a boys swim team back to Elgin High for the first time in more than a dozen years, said soccer and swim coach Dave Borg.

Eduardo, along with some of his teammates, barely knew how to swim decently when the season started, but put in lots of hard work to get to a competitive level, Borg said

"In four years of soccer, I've never seen him rattled by anything," Borg said, adding that Eduardo has a fun side and is well-liked by peers.

Eduardo earned his scholarship through QuestBridge, a California-based organization that connects outstanding high school seniors with 33 partner colleges. The decision to admit students is ultimately up to each college.

"I didn't think much of it until I read on the Web page what they do and the payoff, and so I went for it," he said.

The process starts with a QuestBridge qualifying round in September, followed by a final round in which students apply directly to their chosen universities. Stanford was No. 4 on Eduardo's list, after MIT, Yale and Princeton.

Eduardo was among only 383 students who got college scholarships through the QuestBridge process this year, out of more than 9,500 initial applicants, said Jennifer Stein, director of student recruitment for QuestBridge.

"When selecting finalists, we are looking for students with outstanding academic achievement -- high grades in the most challenging classes available at the school, top 5 to 10 percent of the class, strong essays, good test scores (SAT or ACT) -- as well as financial need," she said.

"Typically finalists have household income less than $60,000 per year, and often significantly less than that, with minimal assets; we are also looking for students whose families have had long-term financial difficulties."

Eduardo's parents are Margarita, a part-time school cafeteria monitor, and Jose Eduardo Perez, a construction worker. Margarita Perez completed one year of high school in Mexico, while her husband finished middle school.

Their three children, which include Edgar, 12, and Carolyn, 11, were born in the United States. All three are in gifted programs at Elgin Area School District U-46.

"I always told (Eduardo) that he should study for his future, that he should be someone in life, that he should change the direction us Hispanics always go into," Margarita Perez said. "We always come to work in yards, in restaurants, but I always told him that he should be somebody better."

Eduardo said his parents have made all kinds of financial sacrifices for him, such as paying more than $5,000 so he could join in a 7th grade student trip to Washington, D.C. for President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009.

"My parents inspired me a lot. They have been working hard, keeping low-paying jobs so that we can have the opportunity for a better future," he said.

School, which came easy for most of his life, became challenging once he entered the gifted program in high school, but his parents' encouragement and sacrifice kept him on the right track, he said.

"Sometimes the work is so overwhelming, you ask yourself, 'Why am I doing this? Why am I losing sleep when I can get a B on the test?'" said Eduardo, who's usually up until midnight studying and often falls asleep with the light on.

"When I'm doing homework and I feel like giving up, I ask myself, 'Do I want to pass up this chance to surpass my parents? They are trying their best to provide for us so we can do better.'"

When Eduardo has something to say, other kids listen, said Lisa Smith, co-sponsor of the Elgin High National Honor Society chapter.

"He is outstanding, in my opinion. He is hardworking and humble," Smith said. "He's really grown into an incredible leader and role model. He's a quiet leader. It's just his presence -- there's just something about him."

Eduardo is so humble that when he was accepted at Stanford, he didn't tell any of his teachers, English teacher Cristina Cabrera said. She found out only because other students told her, she said.

"He's just one of the most impressive kids, as a human being and as a student, that I have had in the gifted academy," Cabrera said.

Eduardo wants to major in chemical engineering at Stanford. Chemistry fascinates him, he said.

"It's the fact you can make basically whatever you want. If you put two and two together, you would think they would make more of that same thing. For example, hydrogen and oxygen are two gases, but together it makes a liquid," he said.

"Chemistry makes everything that's in life."

Eduardo said he wants to make a difference in the world, although he's not yet sure how.

For now, he is encouraging others to follow his path to college.

"When they tell me how cool it is I'm going to Stanford, I always tell them, 'You can do it, too.' And I tell them there's financial aid," he said. "There are a lot of ways to do it."

Ÿ Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl 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 standouts@dailyherald.com.

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