Early College Graduate Headed to Harvard This Fall
Nikasha N Dicks
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Early College Graduate Headed to Harvard This Fall

For Stephanie Zaragoza, hard work and determination have paid off. She is headed to Harvard University this fall.

"It has been a dream for a long time, since I was 12," said Zaragoza. "I remember my Early College interview. They asked me about my plans after graduation, and I said I wanted to go to an Ivy-league school. Harvard was always the school I wanted to go to."

The 18-year-old graduated from Aiken Technical College (Aiken Tech) in May, earning an Associate in Arts degree through Aiken Tech’s Early College program. The program, provided in partnership with Midland Valley High School (MVHS), offers high school students an opportunity to earn an associate degree while working toward their high school diploma.

Zaragoza received her high school diploma from MVHS on June 11 along with several other Early College participants. She is now ready to start her next chapter, a step the Early College program has well-prepared her for, she said.

“I feel like it introduced me to college courses, but also what it is like to be a college student,” she said. “I feel like it gave me a head start on what to expect and what professors are like.”


Getting an Early Start

When Zaragoza learned about the Early College program as a high school freshman, she knew it was something she wanted to do, she said.

"I thought it was a unique opportunity, most of all," she said. "I wanted to expand my knowledge of different subjects, and that's why I joined."

MVHS school students participating in the Early College program begin taking college courses through Aiken Tech the summer before starting their sophomore year. It gives them an early and more advanced start compared to their peers, said Fr. Gregory Rogers, Dean of General Education and University Transfer at Aiken Tech.

“The students can complete the basic general education core of their prospective bachelor’s degree programs and be ready to enter directly into upper-level program courses in which they are interested,” he said. “Most students will matriculate as juniors at their transfer college. Thus, in the time that they would normally invest to get a bachelor’s degree, they will be able to complete the bachelor’s degree and potentially make significant strides in their graduate work—should they choose to pursue that—or get a start on their career.”

The rigor of such a program requires students to handle complex academic subjects and be self-disciplined, mature, and motivated—qualities that Zaragoza showed throughout the program, said Rogers.

“To complete both a high school diploma and an associate degree at the same time shows a high level of capability, character, and persistence,” he said. “Further, the graduates are much better prepared to handle the rigor of higher-level academic work than would be the average high school graduate. This is particularly true when the student has demonstrated, as Stephanie has, a high-level of academic achievement within the courses she has completed.”

While achieving in her courses, she still participated in extracurricular activities at MVHS, including the National Honor Society, Beta Club, and the National Spanish Honor Society.

"A lot of my close friends were also in Early College, so it was great to be able to rely on them for support and help each other if we had any doubts," she said. "It was a fun experience being able to have life as a high schooler while still being able to take college courses at Aiken Tech."


Heading to Harvard

Zaragoza applied to Harvard in the fall of 2020, along with several other colleges. While she had her sights set on Harvard, she "didn't think it was going to happen," she said.

Then came a letter during spring break in April.

“I opened it by myself because I was like there’s just no point. Am I going to get in?" she recalled. "I opened it, and I was shocked for a good 10 seconds. Then, I started screaming, and my parents came in and they saw it. It was a really cool moment."

Graduating from Aiken Tech and being accepted to Harvard has meant a lot to her family, she said, adding that her parents inspired her to work hard, and she hopes to do the same for her siblings as the oldest of four.

“They’ve always looked up to me as the oldest, and I wanted to give them something else to look up to," said Zaragoza. "I want to let them know that it is possible to achieve your dreams."


A Bright Future Ahead

Zaragoza says she encourages other high school students to participate in opportunities such as Early College and dual enrollment.

"I would say go for it, definitely, and just try to find resources to help you if everything gets too stressful. Also, the professors are there to help you, especially at the beginning. They know you are new to the college experience, so don't worry too much about that. The Early College family also becomes your support group, so that's a cool thing to be a part of as well."

As far as her future goals, she plans to pursue a major in psychology and become a psychologist or psychiatrist.

"I want to help with mental health, especially in Hispanic communities, and give back to them," she said.

She is on a path to great success, said Rogers.

"Stephanie is dedicated, diligent, exhibits excellent critical thinking abilities, and shows great promise for further accomplishment," he said. "She carries herself with quiet confidence and strength. She has a bright future."

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