How a Denver teen pushed past pandemic challenges and got into Harvard

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DENVER (KDVR) – High school senior Rico Givens-Padilla had been planning for this moment since he was in middle school.

“They normally release their decision on the second Tuesday in December, and so, I was like, waiting around that day, and nothing happened,” he said.

Givens-Padilla, a stand-out student at Denver’s North High School, had been frequently checking the Harvard University website for updates, trying to remain relaxed as he waited to learn whether he had been accepted.

“So then I checked the website, and still nothing there, and so, for a couple of days, I was like, ‘OK. It can drop at any time. I need to be ready,’ and then I checked one last time, and they were like, ‘Tomorrow at 5 p.m. the decision will come out,’” he recalled of his final day of fall semester, as he was tying up loose ends with his high school finals.

Like so many students whose viral selfie-videos in front of their bedroom computers show the intense, anxiety-inducing anticipation involved in checking one’s admission to the school of their dreams, Givens-Padilla’s experience was no different.

He banished his mother from the bedroom and quietly clicked the online button that would hold the key to his future.

“I was like, sitting, and then suddenly, I was standing and screaming,” he said. “It was like everything I’ve worked hard for and everything I’ve wanted since middle school finally happened. I could hear my mom, like, running up, and we started crying and called my sister.”

Kathy Hoffman, Givens-Padilla’s high school counselor at North High School, said the teen is the first student she has had during her 11-year career at the school to be accepted to Harvard. She said he surprised her with the news via Zoom.

“I just started to cry, and (his) mom’s crying, and I’m crying, and it was amazing,” she said. “It was the best gift before winter break for sure,” she said.

For many of the other class of 2021 students at North High School, grade point averages went down between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020, according to data provided by Denver Public Schools.

The Problem Solvers discovered average weighted grades declined from 3.54 to 3.22 this fall. Unweighted GPAs dropped from 3.25 to 2.92.

However, Givens-Padilla said the pandemic restrictions helped him focus on his priorities and passions.

“He makes high school look easy,” said Hoffman.

“The pandemic gave me lots of time to just sit at home and work and get things done,” said Givens-Padilla, who did not have to submit SAT scores in his Harvard application this year because of changes the university made.

Givens-Padilla, who said he received a full-ride scholarship, said he believes part of his success involved his freedom to follow his own passion.

He said he plans to pursue a career in criminal law and someday, he may run for office. 

“I think I can make a more lasting impact in the courts. The law is pretty rigorous,” he said.

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