Pioneering a new family legacy
April 20th, 2016 – Atlanta, Ga.
Stephanie Critchfield, ADDO Worldwide
When Erick Juarez graduated from Harvard University in 2015 he paused to reflect, thankful for where he was but also for where he came from. As the child of migrant farmers, it was the kind of moment he had stolen away many times in life as he chipped steadily away at his future in rural Bainbridge, Georgia.
Erick’s parents emigrated from Mexico to the States in the late 80’s and shortly after started a family. As migrant agricultural field laborers, they spent their early years in the States moving about, eventually settling in Georgia.
Erick spent a part of his childhood in a migrant camp outside Bainbridge. It was temporary living, but for a time his family was there permanently. It was a community within a community. For Erick, it was comfortable yet at the same time limiting. By elementary school, he spoke very little English. “I learned what I knew through kids TV programming,” he joked.
But language didn’t deter him. Erick was a precocious child, eager to learn. And with a network of dedicated teachers from elementary through high school, he was in excellent hands. In fact, he largely credits his teachers— from all grade levels—for his success today.
The Road to Valedictorian
Most people won’t tell you their academic lives were set on course in second grade. Erick does. Neither of his parents completed primary school, which left he and his older brother Raul to pioneer a new family legacy. It was something both boys were aware of at some level from an early age.
Watching his mother and father work so hard made a big impact on Erick. From the beginning, he saw school as an opportunity— to learn but also to explore, meet new people, to discover the world, and to make his parents proud.
By the second grade, Erick was identified as gifted and entered in the county’s gifted program, Explo. To this day, he remembers how it felt: like doors were being opened for him. It was his first, albeit small, taste of the world around him. Even his first movie theatre experience was through Explo: “The Little Mermaid, I’ll never forget it,” he recounted.
Those formative elementary school years set Erick on course. In middle school, his academics continued to expand. Once again, he was in the gifted program and also joined the band and Quiz Bowl. By the end of elementary and middle school, Erick was twice the number one student. It was only natural he set his sights on Valedictorian of his graduating class at Bainbridge High School.
Erick pushed even harder in high school, taking AP courses and participating in band, Quiz Bowl, cross country, and Junior ROTC. It was a collection of years he views as vital to shaping his confidence, resilience, and determination to do something important with his life.
Erick’s Quiz Bowl coach, teacher Mitch Alday, remembers him as someone special— intelligent but also humble, kind, and committed. “Our success streak began with Erick,” recalled Mitch. He and best friend Dylan Faircloth were pillars of the Quiz Bowl team, pushing them to several championships over the years. Despite his success, Erick remained humble, never complacent. Mitch uses an analogy with students, asking what to do with a rough stone. His answer: “You polish it.” He then tells students you do the same thing with a polished rock— always refining it. “Erick was always polishing his stone,” he noted.
During the summer between his junior and senior year, Erick received his first taste of college life when he attended the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program (GHP) as a Mathematics finalist. Challenged by the professors as much as by the other students in the program, it was an experience that stoked the fire in him about his future.
By his senior year, Erick had easily secured his place as Valedictorian. Delivering his commencement speech carried special weight for his family. He and his older brother need only to have graduated high school to pave new ground for his family. Yet, there he stood as Valedictorian. And it was only the beginning.
Proving Failure is Not Final
Erick received interest from the University of Georgia, Duke, Harvard, and West Point. Inspired by his time in Junior ROTC and a desire to give back to his country, Erick chose West Point. It would prove to be the biggest challenge of his young life. “I had hard time with the transition,” explained Erick. “It was like everything hurtled together at once— being away from family, academics, physical challenges, and then finding out Dylan was killed in a car accident early on, during Cadet Basic Training.”
Losing Dylan was a big and unexpected blow. He and Erick were very close. According to Quiz Bowl coach Mitch, the two were a perfect complement to one another, and alike in many ways.
“They brought out the best in each other,” described Mitch. “His loss was a profound and early lesson in how fragile life is.”
Eventually, Erick made the difficult decision to leave West Point. Honorably discharged, he found himself unsure of his next move. It was a truly low point in his life— a first major brush with failure. But it didn’t deter him for long.
Harvard University allowed Erick to reapply. His concentration in neurobiology will allow him to pursue the medical field, with a dream of becoming a surgeon. He also has aspirations of going into politics somewhere down the road. He intends to apply to schools across the country, including Georgia. “I’d love to be back home,” said Erick with a smile.
Right now, though, he is using his gap year to do something special. Along with just 50 other candidates, Erick was selected for the Princeton in Latin America (PiLA) fellowship. The Princeton University-based service fellowship pairs candidates with non-profits and NGOs throughout Latin America. Erick is serving in Colombia, South America as a volunteer with the Developing Minds Foundation, a group that works to rehabilitate child soldiers of the FARC guerilla. “Without this kind of intervention, their futures are grim,” explained Erick. “We provide them a nurturing environment and practical skills they’ll need to reestablish themselves in society.” He may have come from a disadvantaged background, but these children are experiencing something far worse. “I am humbled by the opportunity to help,” he added.
Ultimately, Erick believes it is Georgia public education that has put him where he is today. “The academics, the educators and their support, the diversity of the student body— all were essential in shaping my readiness for a higher education and beyond.”
And while he may have graduated from Harvard University, it’s his high school ring he wears every day. “I appreciate so much what my Georgia education provided me. I miss it to this day.”