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Graduate’s path: From Ecuador to the Ivy League

GRAD_CABEZAS
TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
Mateo Cabezas came to the United States with his family from Ecuador when he was 3. His mother has cleaned houses to pay the bills, and Mateo has worked two jobs. He has mastered English and German, is ranked No. 3 in his class, and is headed to an Ivy League school – University of Pennsylvania – on a full scholarship.

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Zoyla Romo-Yañez brought her two sons and her daughter from Ecuador to the United States 15 years ago with little to their name. Nobody in the family spoke English.

She and her children had struggles but worked their way through them.

And Thursday afternoon, her youngest child, 18-year-old Mateo Cabezas, will graduate from Butler High School with an academic ranking in the top five of his class. In the fall, he’ll attend the University of Pennsylvania, as the first student in Butler’s nearly two-decade history to attend that Ivy League school.

“Only in America could the son of a house cleaner do something like this,” said Cabezas’s academic mentor, Carol Auerbach.

House cleaning is how Zoyla Romo-Yanez has paid the bills for her family since they arrived in the United States. Her children learned English in preschools and elementary schools, and the family moved occasionally because Romo-Yanez wanted her children in what she considered to be good schools.

“When I think about my life – where I’ve been and where I’m going – I know I’ve been blessed with a wonderful opportunity,” Cabezas said.

Cabezas worked to reach this point. He has been employed by a grocery store through high school and occasionally helped his mom with her job. He said the cleaning job helped the family in several ways.

“People gave us furniture, clothing, and other help,” said Cabezas, who has visited Ecuador a couple of times. “People who lived in the houses my mom cleaned often helped us.”

The children have thrived: His brother, Damian, 26, graduated from UNC Chapel Hill. His sister, Daniela, 31, holds down a good job.

“This country is full of opportunities,” Cabezas said. “We have tried to take advantage of them.”

More than a year ago, one of Romo-Yañez’s clients told Auerbach, who operates a company that helps prepare high school students for college, about Mateo Cabezas. Auerbach does some pro bono work and decided to meet with the Butler student, then a junior.

“I realized right away that this was a kid who could really make it,” she said. “He impressed me – again and again.”

Auerbach supplemented the work being done by Cabezas’ teachers and counselors at Butler, helping him pick a college, prepare for tests and guiding him through the application process.

She said that in addition to his work ethic and intelligence, Cabezas has “a wonderful spirit.”

She recalled a day last fall when she was busy, tutoring several students, and Cabezas arrived for his session.

“I was in my overload mode and I told him, ‘OK, now we’re going to do this and this and this ...’

“He looked at me and said, ‘Wait a minute, Ms. Auerbach. How was your day?’ 

Cabezas, who is fluent in German along with English and his native Spanish, has completed a number of Advanced Placement classes. He learned to play guitar and drums by ear.

He says he still finds himself surprised at what has happened.

“When I was accepted to Penn, I asked myself, ‘How did I get this?’ ” Cabezas said.

Now Cabezas says he promised himself not to squander the opportunity.

“My personal philosophy,” he said, “is whatever happens in life ... make the most of it. That way, there’s no regret.”

Lyttle: 704-358-6107; Twitter: @slyttle
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