Ignacio Bayardo’s life story isn’t one you’d expect from a kid destined for Harvard in the fall.
He switched elementary schools four times. His first language wasn’t English. His mom and much of his family lives in Mexico.
But the Pasco High salutatorian always wanted to attend an Ivy League school and nothing was going to stop him from fulfilling his dream.
That sense of determination is paying off for Ignacio. He graduates Saturday with a 3.9 grade-point average. Financial aid from Harvard University and a Gates Millennium Scholarship means his undergraduate education is virtually paid for.
He and others who know him acknowledge the challenges he’s faced over the years and that his success wasn’t guaranteed.
“It was a big deal to be accepted (to Harvard) because it was possible and it convinces those around him that it’s possible,” said Steve Rowley, Ignacio’s English teacher at Pasco High.
A humble beginning
Born in Pasco to Mexican immigrants, Ignacio said his mother worked in the fields but also had other jobs such as a waitress, while his father worked mostly in construction.
Ignacio did not speak English when he started kindergarten and remained in bilingual classrooms until he was in the fourth grade. His family moved around a lot and he attended Maya Angelou, Robert Frost and Mark Twain elementary schools, as well as at Basin City Elementary School in the North Franklin School District.
But school was a refuge for him — a place he said he felt safe and where he could trust his teachers. And it’s where he found his love of numbers.“Math was my favorite subject. It came a lot easier to me than language,” Ignacio said.
His mother had a middle school-level education before getting her high school equivalency degree a few years ago. But that didn’t stop her from pushing her son to do his best when he was young.
“Basically, her standard was either an ‘A’ or you failed,” he said.
Eric Whitemarsh, who teaches seventh-grade math at Stevens Middle School, remembers his first impression of Ignacio when he was a student there.“In class he was one of those students who was always mature beyond his age,” Whitemarsh said.
Whitemarsh and Ignacio talked at length at the time about the young man’s future and interests. Ignacio told his teacher that he dreamed of attending Harvard but discounted it as a possibility.
Whitemarsh insisted otherwise: “I told him he can go anywhere he wants.”
To Mexico and back
Halfway through Ignacio’s eighth-grade year, family issues led him to move to Mexico with his mother, and siblings to live with his grandparents, a topic he wasn’t comfortable talking much about.
Ignacio said he knew it would be difficult to succeed, much less realize his dream of attending Harvard, if he stayed in Mexico. He also missed the friends and life he’d built in Pasco. He convinced his mother to let him return and, after earning the money for a plane ticket, flew back his sophomore year and moved in with an aunt.
“I’m more American than I am Mexican,” he said.
Two years in Mexico affected Ignacio’s English skills, so he took remedial courses to catch up. One of his teachers had him read an essay written by Kelsey Price, 18, who is this year’s valedictorian, to help him with his writing.
Kelsey said Ignacio was quiet when she first met him about two years ago, but they’ve since become friends, helping each other and studying together, though they’ve maintained a bit of rivalry.
“It’s been really interesting to get to know him,” she said. “He has a really interesting and inspiring story.”
Ignacio jumped into his studies at Pasco High with the same passion he’d always had for learning and kept pursuing his dream to attend Harvard.
He became involved in Pasco High’s National Honor Society chapter — he’s the president this year — and other student groups. He was one of two student representatives on the Pasco School Board this year.
He has a part-time job at a fast food restaurant he uses to pay his own expenses while living with his aunt. He also helps look after his 17-year-old sister, Elena, who is back in the U.S. from Mexico after he convinced his family to let her continue her schooling in Pasco, too.
Realizing the dream
Rowley said he became a mentor to Ignacio and encouraged his dream but also emphasized the need for backup plans. The teacher said he thought Ignacio could get into Harvard based on his academic performance and community involvement, but it would still be a long shot.
He helped Ignacio determine other options, including applying to Columbia Basin College in Pasco.
“There’s a lot of very qualified people who get turned away,” Rowley said. “That’s why we call (Harvard) a dream school.”
Harvard is one of eight universities in the Ivy League, an athletic conference known for its rigorous academic programs. Tens of thousands of students apply to the schools each year but they have a historically low acceptance rate: Harvard has one of the lowest at about 6 percent.
Attending such a univeristy is also expensive. Tuition costs a minimum of about $50,000 a year, with some getting close to $60,000 a year — and that’s without including living expenses.
Harvard notified Ignacio in April that he was one of 2,100 students out of 35,000 applicants accepted for the fall term.
The school will cover part of his tuition and costs. His Gates scholarship is part of a program funded by a $1 billion grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and is renewable all the way through graduate school, which could help Ignacio pay for medical school.
He is the fourth student from the Pasco School District to receive the scholarship since 2009.
Rowley said Ignacio’s acceptance to Harvard sets a precedent for other students, demonstrating what they can accomplish as long as they stay committed to their goals.
He added that it’s now up to Ignacio to make it to Boston for classes in the fall and follow through, but he doesn’t anticipate that being an issue.
“I think he’s driven enough to do it,” Rowley said. “He’s an idea guy, he’s just flowing with ideas and he doesn’t have an audience.”
Whitemarsh said Ignacio visited him at Stevens to tell him about getting into Harvard.
“It just blows you away,” Whitemarsh said, noting the accomplishment rests entirely in Ignacio’s determination.
Ignacio said he’s ready to take the next step and he’ll leave for Harvard in late August. But for now, he’s reveling in having completed a major step toward his future. He said it’ll be nice to relax this summer, though he’ll still be working to save up money.
“I’ve never had this much free time before,” he said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; email@example.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver
It’s tassel time
Look inside today’s paper for a keepsake special section featuring the graduating classes of more than 40 high schools, as well as Washington State University Tri-Cities and Columbia Basin College.
See graduation updates and photos throughout today and Saturday online at www.tri-cityherald.com/mid-columbia-graduations/index.html.