National scholarship winner at Jefferson fearless

I thought I couldn’t be any more impressed with Jefferson High School senior Gerardo Castillo, who won a Gates Millennium scholarship and will be headed to Harvard University in the fall. Then, stepping off the elevator in the Rockford Public Schools administration building, I ran into Auburn High School Principal Devon LaRosa. I asked LaRosa if he had heard of Gerardo’s award. He wasn’t fazed. He told me Gerardo taught himself to play an instrument. That figures.

LaRosa was an assistant principal at Jefferson before he got the top job at Auburn last year. Gerardo impressed LaRosa the same way he impressed every person I talked to. Fearless. A challenge seeker. A tireless worker. Committed to education.

As one of 1,000 Millennium scholars, Castillo will receive financial aid to fill all of his unmet need at Harvard until graduation. He’ll also get leadership training. And, if he pursues or a master’s or doctoral degree in certain fields, the Gates Foundation will help him with that, too. Gerardo wants to major in chemistry at Harvard and go to medical school, so he’d be in the targeted fields for help.

When I talked to Gerardo on Monday, he had just taken the exam for one of his four Advanced Placement classes this semester. He said it went OK, which is amazing considering all the pressure he’s been under. Accepted at Harvard, Dartmouth and Brown, he faced a tough choice: Where to spend the next four years of his life? Which community – which students – would fit him best? Ultimately, after a long weekend visiting schools, he opted for Harvard. Even though a big city like Boston was foreign to him – he’s only been to Chicago a few times — he said he felt comfortable around the other admitted students. At some point during the wee hours of the morning, talking to students at a Starbucks near campus, he knew he had found his fit.

Because Harvard has only a 6.9 percent acceptance rate (2,023 out of 34,295 students who applied), it’s easy to envy Gerardo. That ignores how hard he has worked.

In addition to the nine AP courses he has taken and the straight As he has earned at Jefferson, he has run track and cross-country for four years (he holds the JV record in the 2-mile at 10:09.) He has been treasurer of the Student Council for three years and secretary of the National Honor Society. He plays piano for two churches and shares duties as choir director. (I didn’t ask him about the cello.)

His AP Government teacher, Elisabeth Zorn, talks about how Gerardo insisted on forming a team earlier this year for the Moody’s Mega Math Challenge, a 14-hour test of intellectual endurance that requires students to use statistics and calculus to address a real-world issue.  This year’s challenge was to design a school lunch program with limited resources. Zorn said Gerardo asked to enter the school on a Sunday so the team could prepare.

“He is so willing to try anything,” Zorn said. “He pursues things like no other student ever I’ve had.”

Gerardo seems prouder of the team’s honorable mention than if they had won any of the top awards in the Moody’s challenge. I asked him where his drive and passion for education comes from. “It’s just the way I was raised,” he said. He will be a first-generation college student.

Sometime between the early morning Starbucks session in Cambridge and the plane ride back to Rockford, Gerardo and another Harvard student squeezed in a seven-mile run through the city. They talked about their plans to be walk-ons for the track and cross-country teams at Harvard. Figures.

Mary Kaull is communications coordinator at the Rockford Public Schools.