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Meet Axel, SLI scholar: “It’s like going from zero to 100, from my parents having no college to me getting into Harvard with a full ride.”

An interview with SLI scholar Axel (John Handley High School ’23, Harvard University ’27), whose college plans came together this spring.

What are you planning to study at Harvard University?

I plan to concentrate in neuroscience, most likely on the premed track. I’m pretty sure I want to become a doctor – maybe a cardiologist – but I’m keeping an open mind about different specialties.  

Is anyone in your family working in a medical field? Why neuroscience?

No, but neuroscience is a good connection between biology and psychology, and is somewhat interesting to me because my grandma had Alzheimer’s before she passed. It’s also cool to see how different cultures behave and see things so differently. The U.S has its own standards and beliefs, but at home in Mexico there’s a whole different set of standards, and there’s this conflict between what’s right and what’s wrong, and what’s offensive and what’s not offensive when it comes to things like eye contact or body language or certain actions.

Neuroscience goes more into the biology of the brain that can possibly explain how the brain develops differently in different environments. In some of my classes we studied how there’s a prime stage for learning and then after a certain point you can still learn but not as fully as if you had learned it when you were younger. I wonder what else relates to that.

A hypothesis I have is about polarization, especially with social media and how maybe algorithms give in to confirmation bias and then that just takes society further apart. I wonder if that has any physiological impacts on the brain and could turn people closed-minded.

What was it like to learn that you were accepted into Harvard with a full ride?

First I had an interview with a Harvard alumnus. That was extremely nerve-wracking, but I thought it went pretty well. Then a few days later I got an email saying I had a second interview, with my admissions officer. So I was like, “Okay, maybe I have a chance.” That interview went even better, but it was still a surprise when I found out I got in.

The decision came out around 7 p.m., but I knew I wanted to be with my family to open the application portal message and my sister didn’t get out of work until later. So I waited for her to get home and then my whole family and I got together in my room and opened it. Once I saw “Congratulations” I was like, “I got in!” and then we started hugging each other and celebrating.

After we finished hugging it out and everything, I set up a login for the second portal, for financial aid, and it was there that I found out that I got a full ride.

My parents are pretty proud of me because they didn’t get to go to college because they didn’t have the money or the resources in Mexico, and so they brought us here for that. It’s kind of like going from zero to 100, from my parents having no college to me getting into Harvard with a full ride.

Are you nervous?

Now? No, I’m excited! Harvard has this event called Visitas towards the end of April for admitted students to get to know campus. I’m pretty excited because I’ll be flying out to Boston on my own, and Harvard’s paying for the plane ticket, too. We get to be hosted by a current student in a dorm for one night, but we don’t get our actual housing assignments until July.

What do you think made your college application stand out?

I know that it’s important to view things in a broader context and to have situations of selflessness, of having a purpose and finding something that is a passion. For me that’s advocacy for LGBTQ student rights, which is a matter of human rights.

I’m the president of the HEROIS club, which stands for Helping Educate Regarding Orientation and Identity on the Spectrum. It’s mainly to help create a safe space for LGBTQ students at Handley, so some of what we do are community building events. I’m also the Winchester chapter lead for the Pride Liberation Project. It’s not school affiliated, but it’s a student-led organization in Virginia that advocates for LGBTQIA+ rights. The main topic in the past year has been rights for trans students. We organized around 100 walkouts across Virginia last September, including at Handley.

At Harvard they have what’s called the Office of BGLTQ Student Life. I still have more to learn about it, but I’m definitely looking to be involved with that.

There’s also being well-rounded. I did a number of different things in school: speech, debate, and wrestling, and I was a student rep for the school board along with another student. 

Wrestling was funny because it kind of surprised people because I don’t seem like the type of person who would wrestle. The pandemic kind of got me to join wrestling because I felt like I needed to get out of my comfort zone, and while I wasn’t good at wrestling, I still made small improvements. And I definitely got out of my comfort zone. 

Wrestling really pushes you because it’s you and one other person and no one else. It’s kind of a fight for dominance.

Would you describe yourself as a competitive person?

No. It’s funny, but no. I lost every single match, but I still kept going. I might have cried sometimes, I might have gotten upset, but I didn’t quit. With other competitions, like with forensics and debate, I mainly just did stuff for fun and didn’t really get too deep into the competition.

It seemed like every year something always happened where I had to be out for an extended period. The first year I was out for a month because I had to quarantine because my mom had COVID, and then after she had it I had it, so that was like a whole month of being out. Coming back there wasn’t really much left of the season.

Then my second year of wrestling, my uncle died so I was gone for three weeks because the funeral was out in Arizona. We flew out before we even had a date for the funeral, so we were just there waiting. And then this year I went out again, but just for a vacation to Arizona and Mexico, because my parents were thinking after my uncle died that they only make an effort to go and see family once they’ve passed, and instead they should make an effort to see more family when they’re living.

So you still have family that you visit in Mexico?

Yes. It really puts things in perspective, that my parents left their family for us to get an education and they’re still away from their family, and I’m almost ready to graduate. They’re getting older, so they’re talking about when they retire they’re going to go back to Mexico knowing that they did their job: They got us an education, they worked, got us a roof, food, everything.

When we go to visit Mexico it’s a massive difference, seeing how different they are, overall more happy, so I think it’s really the best for them to retire over there. They’ve been planning renovations to their house. They would sell the house here and then use that money to renovate a house there.

Do you think you would maybe go back to Mexico at some point?

I see myself staying mainly because of the violence in Mexico. When we were last there there was the arrest of El Chapo’s son, and that happened the day we were supposed to leave. A bunch of members of the cartel carjacked a bunch of people’s cars, burned them, and blocked streets and everything, so we couldn’t even leave. Before that I was considering going to Mexico every now and then to visit, but now I’m not even sure if I feel safe going there.

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