Connor Castaneda shakes his head now and smiles a little bit. It was part naivete and part youthful enthusiasm.
He was an eighth-grader at Fannin Middle School in 2019. One of his last assignments was a slideshow about where he expected to go to college. Castaneda chose Harvard.
“It was like ignorance is bliss,” he says. “I was probably the biggest dummy ever. Realistically, even if you’re almost perfect in school and do a ton of stuff and have amazing test scores, most don’t get in.
“You can only do so much before it’s just luck. I just assumed that I was smart and I would get in. Looking back, it was not a good idea to put all of your eggs in one basket.”
That’s not recommended, but Castaneda had such tunnel vision on the renowned Ivy League school that he saw little else. It came to stomach-churning fruition at 7 p.m. on Dec. 15, 2022, when he sat down and logged on to the portal on the website where applicants learn their fate.
“It was like time stopped,” he says. “I sat there for what seemed like forever. I didn’t really say anything. I was with one of my friends and she started screaming, and I thought, ‘Well, that can’t be a bad thing.’ I sat back for five to 10 seconds, saying to myself, ‘This is it. This is everything I wanted.’”
Isaiah Flores had grown up with Casteneda from South Lawn Elementary to Fannin to Caprock High School. He put his eggs in a number of baskets—Cornell, Swarthmore, Stanford, Harvard, Vanderbilt and Texas to name a few. Stanford was his preference, but they didn’t accept him. Four universities did say yes, however, including Harvard.
“I was disappointed a little bit, actually,” Flores says. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy about Harvard, but I’m very goal-oriented. I have a vision and goal that I set. If that fails to occur, even though it’s outside of my control, it’s a longer process for me to accept.
“But the more I thought about it, I thought everything I wanted at Stanford is there at Harvard except the weather. So I’m happy.”
None Older or More Storied
Harvard University is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, three miles west of downtown Boston across the Charles River. There are more than 70 colleges in greater Boston, almost as many as there are Dunkin’ Donuts.
But none are quite like Harvard. Established in 1636, it is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Some will argue, but it has long been considered the top academic university in the country.
Eight U.S. presidents were educated at Harvard—from the second president, John Adams, to latter-day presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, from the Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin, to John Kennedy, whose name is attached to the school of government.
There have been 161 Nobel laureates from Harvard, 23 heads of state and 132 Pulitzer Prize winners. The university has the largest academic endowment in the world at more than $41 billion.
It’s not impossible to gain admittance to Harvard. It just seems that way. For every 100 of the brightest students in the world who apply, at least 96 are denied. Harvard’s acceptance rate runs at about 4 percent. It’s easier to get into North Korea.
For the class of 2027—this year’s incoming freshmen—56,937 students applied. Harvard accepted 1,935. That’s 3.4 percent.
Within that 3.4 percent are two Caprock High School students. One is the youngest child of a mother who is a manager for American Airlines and father who is a courier for FedEx Ground. Another is the oldest child of two parents who work at Pantex.
These are not families of financial means. No legacy Ivy League connections here. Neither young man got started at a private college preparatory boarding school with $35,000 annual tuition. They learned from dedicated faculty at South Lawn, Fannin and Caprock. They had encouraging parents with high expectations. Most of all, these two put no limits on their dreams or their future.
Breaking the mold? They invented the mold.
“They may not realize this yet because they’re 17, 18 years old—although I think they’re starting to—what this means not just to Amarillo, but the east side of Amarillo and to the Caprock community,” says Abby Ortega, college career military readiness coordinator at Caprock.
“It’s a huge deal over here. I’m Hispanic. To me, it shows minority kids, ‘Hey, guys, come on, we can do this. Everybody can do this.’ We need that voice. We need that example. No, it’s not necessarily about going to Harvard, but about setting goals high and not letting the barriers that seem to hold a lot of people back do it again.”
Foundations for Learning
When Flores was young, Christopher and Cristina Flores set high standards for him, the oldest of four children. They didn’t want him to go through the struggles, he says, of their choices when they were young.
“It was a structured environment,” he says. “They focused on education a lot. But they would have been happy had I gone to Amarillo College.”
Charity Castaneda is a teacher at heart. She read to Chazz and Cara, Connor’s two older siblings, and she passed that along to him. She had Connor doing simple math, counting to 10, higher if he could, by the time he was 3 years old.
“So by the time I got to school, it seemed like I was a year ahead of everyone else in just what I knew,” he says. “I was able to meet people, make good friends and just be a kid.”
Charity was no tiger mom, nor was Connor’s father, Christopher, overbearing. They believed in raising well-rounded children.
“It was not one of those things that you can watch TV for only 30 minutes and then you have to go read a book,” Castaneda says. “I was pushed to read, but as a kid, I was also outside until the street lights came on. I was just a regular kid. My parents wanted me to do what I loved. They didn’t want me to hate school.”
By the time the two reached Caprock as freshmen in what would be the COVID school year of 2019-2020, a foundation for learning had long been established. Structure was in place. The process toward a path after high school was in full swing.
“I was just oriented into the way school taught subjects,” Flores says. “Also, I built my application [for college] with more than just academics. I built them with extracurriculars, as well. I wouldn’t say I’m as academic as Connor per se, because Connor is super Type A-oriented.”
Flores looked at each step and each challenge in high school a bit like putting together an engine. It takes time. Each part is important, and no part is too small.
“It took a lot of work,” he says. “It’s a bunch of moving parts. It’s like this giant set of gears, and you have to take each gear and put it in its place for it to work out. For me, that was easy because I’m very organized. But, yes, a lot of studying and pushing myself outside my comfort zone.
“That’s both education and extracurriculars. Some of them are hard for me to understand, like calculus. But I forced myself to take the class and understand the subject. For extracurriculars, a lot of that involved meeting with community members. I’m not the most outgoing person, so being able to expand on how I act socially with other people was something I had to learn.”
Forging Different Paths
Flores was a Superintendent Ambassador for four years, where these young leaders spoke to groups on school issues. He participated in Teen Leadership of Amarillo and Canyon, a teacher-nominated position with three representatives from the high schools in the two cities. The focus is on community outreach.
For most, if not all his time at Caprock, Flores only spent the mornings there. In the afternoons, he attended AmTech Career Academy on Plains Boulevard, Amarillo ISD’s hands-on state-of-the-art learning center for technical and professional careers. (See page 60.)
Entering Caprock, Flores thought he might pursue veterinary medicine. He spent his afternoons at AmTech on the veterinarian pathway program. A U.S. History class under Jennifer Towles in his junior year, where constitutional law was studied, turned Flores toward a legal career, but that didn’t stop him from continuing at AmTech.
Through AmTech, Flores worked as an intern with Canyon Road Animal Hospital, where he spent four hours from Tuesday through Thursday afternoons at the clinic.
“The concept as a whole, being able to graduate with a certificate and complete an internship was a good learning experience,” he says. “The internship taught me so much about working with different types of people. It developed me as a professional in a different way than at Caprock because of AmTech’s focus.”
Castaneda also had a history course impact him as a freshman—an Advanced Placement World History class. He didn’t like the class, which confirmed that he should focus on math and science. Castaneda was already on Caprock’s Science Bowl team as a freshman, and there was no reason to change direction.
As a sophomore, Castaneda took two OnRamps classes that are dual enrollment initiatives through the University of Texas. They are college-level courses in science, technology, math, arts and humanities.
“They are very rigorous and difficult and probably the highest level of college work I’ve seen,” says Caprock Physics Teacher Christi Wheeler.
The homework and exams are online. High school teachers may help, but it is college level work. Castaneda took an OnRamps Physics course and then took an OnRamps GeoScience class guided by Science Teacher Rohn Butterfield.
“Those classes harnessed my desire to learn and steered me in that direction,” Castaneda says.
Both Wheeler and Butterfield have coached Caprock’s Science Bowl. They saw a student who was both focused and grounded.
“He is very driven, which I love because I’m very driven myself,” Wheeler says. “He’s always pushing for more, and trying to learn and achieve more. That’s one of the things I tell my students is not to ever stop learning, so that’s one thing I love about him.
“He just has a way of thinking about things I have never seen before. He’s definitely over my level. He has pushed me when he’s asked me questions—‘I’m going to have to get back to you on that.’ I do a little research and answer to the best of my ability.”
Castaneda was Caprock’s valedictorian with a 102.50 grade average. He was also a National Merit Scholar, a drum major in the Longhorn band, and played the saxophone in a jazz band. That’s in addition to working at Target the past two years.
“Connor knew he was the smartest kid in the room in whatever room he was in, but he never had to show that he was that guy,” Butterfield says. “He always included people.
“Some students are very intellectual and miss some of the social skills. They are good in a room of odd ducks like themselves, but with regular people, they are kind of gruff, impatient, and ‘you should understand this because it’s so simple.’ Connor never exhibited any of that.”
While good and improving on the sax, it did not come easy for Castaneda, certainly not like math and science. That was probably good in terms of balance.
“He was not the best sax player in the world and that grounded him a little bit,” Butterfield says. “He had to work to become a really good sax player.”
Acceptance or Rejection?
Last summer began the college application process for most of the class of ’23, including these two. As Flores might put it, there were a few more gears for him as he applied at more universities.
Stanford, in the Bay Area of Palo Alto, California, had always been his dream school. He also applied to the Ivy League’s Cornell, Yale, Harvard and Princeton, as well as the University of Texas, Vanderbilt in Nashville, and Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts school in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
Texas’ acceptance rate is 29 percent. The average acceptance rate of the other seven schools is 5.3 percent.
For his part, Castaneda considered Cal Tech and Massachusetts Institute of Technology—just 1.5 miles from Harvard—but not enough to apply. He wouldn’t recommend it, but he applied for just one—the one he did a slideshow on as an eighth-grader at Fannin.
“As stupid as that was, I only applied to Harvard,” he says. “Every time I looked at different programs or majors at other schools, it pointed me back to Harvard. That was the place I needed to be. For someone who knew early on where he wanted to go, I was not prepared at all. I really had to run for the finish line.”
Castaneda took the SAT as a sophomore and again as a junior. He took the SAT again this past November, the last possible date and within a three-week grace period that Harvard allows. He scored a 1540 out of 1600. The average SAT score at Harvard is 1530.
Flores took his SAT last year. Submitting the test score was optional at Ivy League schools because of the COVID year.
“I chose not to submit it,” he says. “My score was good, but not Ivy League good.”
Applications at elite academic institutions are not that different from most universities. There’s the high school transcript, the college test scores—though even those can be optional at some universities—and the common essay. Beyond that, schools often will tailor specific requirements.
Applicants to Harvard interview with a graduate from their region, which can be large depending on the location. Flores and Castaneda interviewed with an environmental engineer who had been employed in Midland, but had moved to Detroit.
They are interviewed on personal life, academics and extracurricular activities. The interviews, done on Zoom, carry significant weight.
Flores found the Harvard application “light and abstract” compared to other Ivy League schools. There was a general essay of 1,200 words, which was “my personal statement,” and the option to include more work. He submitted a 10-page analysis of a Supreme Court case he wrote in government class.
Castaneda, with his college eggs in just one Ivy League basket, did a deep dive on his essay. He had one shot to make an impression.
“My essay was not very normal,” he says. “I didn’t want to be put in a stack 100 pages high of common essays. I wrote in mine that I knew I always had the ability to achieve, but never knew who I was. I had all these grades but didn’t know what I was supposed to do. But band and Science Bowl taught me how to be a regular kid and focus on what I wanted to do and who I was.”
Later, after he was accepted, Castaneda received an email from a Harvard administrator who reviewed the applicants to say how much he enjoyed his essay because of its simplicity.
For Flores, college acceptances and a few rejections trickled in. Cornell and Texas said yes. He was wait-listed at Vanderbilt and Princeton, and accepted at Swarthmore. Yale said no. He was accepted at Harvard, then the next day, he was denied at Stanford.
Financial aid is more plentiful in the Ivy League. After getting over the initial disappointment of Stanford, it seemed like an easy call for Harvard. It was.
For Castaneda, the anticipation and the academic crossroads were a little different. He didn’t have another option should Harvard deny him. Finding another university wouldn’t have been difficult, just disappointing.
Through the process, Castaneda believed it more likely he would be rejected than accepted. Some of it may have been that 96 percent of all applicants are denied, and some perhaps just a defense mechanism against disappointment.
“So when I was accepted, there was just the whirlwind of emotions, like what’s next?” he says. “I felt kind of alone. It was scary.”
An Example to Many
Castaneda initially only told Chazz. His brother, who is attending West Texas A&M University, has pushed him to be better for a long time. How and when to tell his parents?
It was 10 days before Christmas. Some kind of announcement at Christmas would make for quite the present. Castaneda ordered two hats that day, “Harvard Dad” and “Harvard Mom” and paid extra for next-day delivery.
Waiting for Christmas was going to be impossible. Castaneda didn’t sleep much for two nights. He was sure his parents knew he was acting strange.
Two days later, his parents had a rare day off during the busy Christmas season. They were doing some shopping that day. Their son was working an 8-hour shift at Target. He called them and arranged to take a break and meet in a nearby parking lot.
Castaneda jumped in the back of the truck and handed Christopher and Charity two wrapped gifts. Open them now, he told them.
“They were like, ‘What are you doing? What is this?’ They were confused,” he says.
Taking the hats out, Charity asked, just for confirmation, if he got in. His father stared ahead in silence, gathering it all in.
“He didn’t say a word,” Castaneda says. “He started to cry a little, maybe. They are good parents, and I think it hit them—‘I raised my kid and he’s going to Harvard.’ That’s something they never expected.”
One month past high school graduation, Connor Castaneda and Isaiah Flores are already in Cambridge. They are part of the Harvard Rising Scholars program from June 24 through Aug. 12. It is an intensive seven-week, eight-credit course on campus that introduces first-year students to academic expectations with specialized support.
Flores will major in Public Policy, while Castaneda will likely hone in on Computer Science, believing that study could branch off to a number of fields.
For these two, they are immersed in learning as they have been for years and will continue for several more. But the other part of the story is what they can teach others. In the classroom of opportunity, they have seized it.
They were not born with silver spoons. They had no connections, no wealth to open closed doors. They worked for DoorDash and at Target. They are sons of East Amarillo. They had a support system and an unquenchable belief in themselves and are happy to share that.
What they share doesn’t have to be as specific or lofty a destination as Harvard. It is the hope that’s visible when goals point past the barriers of broken dreams.
“That’s exactly how I feel,” Flores says. “To see little kids come up to you or people comment on Facebook they’ve been inspired makes me happy. To be that representation for people in my community, especially the younger ones who may have those goals but don’t necessarily believe they can be achieved, to be that person to show them they can has really been special.”