Alumna Cynthia Perez spoke to the Class of 2017 Scholars at Senior Dinner

By 05/23/2017

Alumna Cynthia Perez, Waukegan High School '09, Stanford University '13, Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine '18, recently spoke at Senior Dinner sharing her advice and story with the Class of 2017 Scholars. Read her speech below. 

It is a pleasure to be joining you during this incredibly important part of your lives: high school graduation. You are about to close a very important chapter and start a new journey that will continue to mold you into even more incredible adults that you are today. I can honestly say that my four years at Stanford were some of the most rewarding yet terrifying years of my life, which I will talk about later. I was brought here to tell you a little bit about my story and provide advice that I’ve learned along the way. Here we go.

I was born and raised in Waukegan, Illinois by a single mother who emigrated here from Mexico. From the very beginning, my mom told me that education would be my ticket to becoming whatever I wanted to be. And, from the very beginning, I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. As a child, I obviously didn’t know what I had to do to become a doctor—and today there are still parts of the process I still struggle with. No one ever said it would be an easy road to following your dream. So here is my first piece of advice: if it’s storming, put a hat on and keep going.

Lets start with middle school: I wasn’t the brightest student in middle school, and it wasn’t until 8th grade that I started to feel any motivation. Why? Because we were given the opportunity to apply for a scholarship program that would follow you throughout high school, would help you apply for college, and would take you on some amazing field trips. And gosh, I really wanted to go on those field trips! So, I hit the books and made sure I was as qualified an applicant I could be. I’m not sure how I did it, but I ended up getting straight A’s on my report card that semester. I still remember where I was when I found out I was accepted to the Schuler Scholar Program. It must have been Spring because it was really sunny outside, and I had picked the mail up and saw that blue Schuler tree on an envelope. I quickly opened it up and called my mom to tell her the good news. This moment changed my life. So here is my second piece of advice: remember how you felt when you accomplished something you worked hard for, and keep striving for that feeling.

So, I get to high school. As many of you are well aware—high school was hard. Classes were hard, extracurriculars took up a great deal of your time, and Schuler seemed like another source of stress throughout the four years. But as I’ve told many of you before, Schuler works. I’m sure you are all sitting here saying to yourselves, “okay, maybe I was a little annoyed that Schuler had x or y mandatory events that took up precious homework time,” but look at yourselves now. You are all going to COLLEGE, and not just ANY college—the top colleges in the nation! I’m telling you, they’ve obviously thought this all through and know what they’re doing. It probably took me until senior year to figure this out—but since then I’ve always included them in my equation for my success. And here is my third piece of advice: know who your cheerleaders are, they are part of the reason why you are where you are todayMy Schuler cheerleaders were Gwen, Rob, and Gayle. Three people I continue to keep in contact with.

I also remember the night I found out I was accepted to Stanford. It was Friday, December 12. I was supposed to receive the news that upcoming Monday, and my stomach was in a knot the entire week preceeding that day. It was obvious my mom couldn’t tolerate my nerves anymore, so she subtly suggested I go to the basketball game with my friends. So, I went. To get into the stands, you have to go up two flights of stairs. On my way up, I see my friend, Torie, bawling her eyes out. She had applied to Stanford, and she just got the news that she was accepted. My body was overcome with so many emotions—excitement that my friend is going to STANFORD and terror that I would be receiving my e-mail soon. I call my mom immediately to check my e-mail (we did not have e-mail on our phones back then, I know, so retro).

My mom is not the most tech savvy individual—I had to go through the entire process with her step-by-step “okay, press the internet button, type in on the line at the top of the page.” You can imagine just how antsy I was. I kid you not, this process took about 10 minutes. During these ten minutes, I see another friend, Joe, jumping up and down from the band section. He also applied to Stanford, and he just found out he was accepted. “MOM HURRY UP I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!” And from the other line came complete silence….. “Congratulations, Ms. Perez.” My heart stopped. I hung up the phone, ran to Torie and Joe, and we just screamed. Three Waukegan Schuler Scholars applied, three were accepted. I will never forget that night. I will also never forget my mom telling me to never hang up the phone on her like that ever again.

Anyway. You get accepted to college, and now you’re in this weird transition point: a time that is full of excitement (omg new friends!  I get my own dorm room! I get to eat whatever I want!) and anxiety (all of my classmates will be so wealthy! The classes are going to be so hard! Will I fit in?). I felt all of this and more. I always felt like I got “lucky” in getting accepted to Stanford. I felt that I might have been chosen to fulfill the “daughter of a single parent from Mexico” quota. It took me four years and some change to get over this, and to accept that I was chosen for my intelligence, my passion, and my determination to change the world. I hope it doesn’t take you all this long to realize that. You were all single-handedly chosen to be part of this family (I know, because I was part of the selection committee when I worked as a Scholar Coach). You were chosen because we saw something IN YOU and we saw great potential. Colleges also single-handedly chose you out of thousands of applicants. So piece of advice number four: know that you are worthy of your successes. 

College, like I said, was one of the most amazing yet terrifying times of my life. Lets start with the terrifying: the “school” aspect of Stanford was not easy. It took me a whole year to get into the groove of things, to manage my time, to basically “pass” my classes. I was stressed and I called my mom every single day. The first year is always the hardest—you are going to a new place that needs adjusting to, you will be taking classes in large lecture halls, you will be overwhelmed, and that is OKAY. I want you to all know that you have people cheering you on at all times: your family, your friends, and Schuler. We are not sending you out alone to fend for yourself. You have support back here, and it is okay to reach out to your college counselors. Tracy Cappas and Gayle Meyers were two of my “go-tos” when I needed someone to talk—or just cry—to. So here is advice number five: reach out when you need help—you do not need to suffer alone.

I not only reached out to Schuler and my mom, I reached out to professors, teaching assistants, and the mental health center on campus. It wasn’t easy to admit I needed some support, but once I did, I realized that I was not the only one—I remember going to office hours for organic chemistry, and over fifty students were there getting assistance. You are not alone.

Now for the exciting parts of college: I made the most amazing friends at Stanford, friends I continue to keep in contact with four years after graduation. I had the opportunity to try new things: I volunteered in Ecuador, studied in Paris, ate a deep fried oreo. I bungee jumped, I belly-danced, I dressed up as a uterus. College is so much fun. I learned so much from my classes, I actually WANTED to go to class. So piece of advice number six: take as many opportunities to grow both outside and inside of the classroom as you canTake a course that will challenge the way you think about the world. Go to that concert, join that club. You’re going to meet some incredible people, and they are going to want to meet you. But (piece of advice number seven), balance is key.

Do not become the “yes” man/woman and lose sight of what your goals are. Balance will always be something I personally have to work on—medical school, applications, research, exercise, sleep, eating healthy, finding time to hang out with friends. It’s hard, I admit, but it is a good thing to keep in mind: you are a Scholar and a child first and foremost—make sure that what you do in college makes you, your coaches, and your parents proud. 

Alright. I’ve said a lot and I’ve tried to throw in little bits of advice.

  1. If it’s storming, put a hat on and keep going.

  2. Remember how you felt when you accomplished something you worked hard for, keep striving for that feeling.

  3. Know who your cheerleaders are

  4. Accept and embrace that you are worthy of your successes

  5. Reach out when you need help—you do not need to do this alone

  6. Take as many opportunities to grow both outside and inside of the classroom as you can

  7. Balance is key

And number 8: call your mother. (Or dad, or general guardian).

I would not be an ounce of the person I am today had it not been for my mother. She may not have the formal education I’ve received, but gosh, life experience and wisdom gained from that far outweighs any schooling I’ll ever have. She taught me to fight, to persevere, and to keep true to my roots. She was unafraid of my professors—I still remember a time I called her crying because I got a C on a test, she wanted the professors number to talk to him about my grade (“mom, it doesn’t work like that”). She has been my #1 supporter, cheerleader, and friend since the beginning and the least I could do is show her that all of her sacrifices were well worth it. So, call your parents. Let them know you’re alive and eating and making friends. But also let them know when things are hard, they know the truest you and are great listening ears, regardless if they went to college or not.

So, my lovely Schuler Scholars, I am so proud of all of you—those I’ve had the privilege to meet and work with, and those whom I have yet to meet. You are going to do great things. Just take it one step at a time. Thank you.

Cynthia giving her speech at Senior Dinner.

Cynthia giving her speech at Senior Dinner.

Jack and Cynthia pose for a photo op after giving their speeches at Senior Dinner.

Jack and Cynthia pose for a photo op after giving their speeches at Senior Dinner.

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