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Summers Speaks With Florida High Schoolers

By Elisabeth S. Theodore, Crimson Staff Writer

He has eaten pizza in the Houses and danced to hip-hop in Annenberg Hall, but until Thursday, University President Lawrence H. Summers’ efforts to mingle with students had never taken him as far afield as a public high school in Florida.

In a whirlwind visit to Hialeah, Fla. Summers received the key to the city, met with two Harvard-bound students and their families and spoke to 400 of their Hialeah High School classmates.

The hour-and-a-half stop—a break from a Florida fundraising trip—was Summers’ first at a high school outside Massachusetts since he became president.

He has visited the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and on two trips to Asia visited universities.

In Thursday’s speech, he reiterated the University’s commitment to affirmative action and financial aid and encouraged Hialeah students to apply to college.

“The kids were mesmerized by him,” said Hialeah administrator Michael Kesselman. “He really motivated a lot of students. They all came out all pumped up.”

Hialeah, where over 80 percent of families speak primarily Spanish in their homes, has made news with a dramatic academic turnaround that was capped by four students’ matriculation at Harvard this fall.

The two seniors who met with Summers last week have been accepted through the College’s early action admission program and six others hope to gain admission in April, said Kesselman, the school’s academic dean.

Kesselman said that five years ago, only 52 out of a graduating class of about 700 Hialeah students went on to four-year colleges, while last year over 200 did.

On Thursday, Summers breakfasted with the two Harvard-bound students, Rosmary Roca and Odeviz Soto, their families, the families of the four current first-years, school officials and the Hialeah mayor.

Soto said Summers chatted—over Cuban pastries and fruit—with the Floridians about topics ranging from getting into Harvard to the likely war in Iraq and its destabilizing effects on the Middle East.

“Of course, we didn’t want to get into an economics discussion with him,” Soto said of the former treasury secretary.

After the breakfast meeting, Summers took the stage in the school library, alongside Soto, Roca and MIT-bound Hialeah senior Rashida Nek, to speak on education and field questions from the audience.

Soto said he thought the speech was “inspiring for the underclassmen.”

“He made it very clear that it could be a world-renowned pianist or a tremendous debater or just an outstanding human being” who gets in to Harvard, said Soto, who hopes to concentrate in economics while fulfilling pre-med requirements.

Roca, who intends to jointly concentrate in government and economics next year, said students asked about the living conditions and opportunities available in Cambridge—her brother, she said, asked Summers “what was so great about Harvard.”

Summers, she said, responded that Harvard’s relatively low student-faculty ratio and diversity of faculty, students and fields contributed to its academic environment.

The Miami Herald, the local NBC and ABC outlets, Univision and the Miami-based Spanish-language newspaper Diario las Americas all covered Summers visit.

According to the Herald, Summers told students that “there is nothing that would set this country back, nothing that would make this country less likely to succeed, nothing that would give greater support in the long run to countries that are adversaries of the United States, than for us to have the situation where members of every group don’t feel like they have a chance to be at places like Harvard.’’

In an interview with the Herald after the speech, Summers called Hialeah a “feeder school” for Harvard, a comment Kesselman said excited the school.

“The principal was extremely flattered by that,” he said.

Medardo M. Martin ’06, one of the four students who came from Hialeah last year, said he thought Summers’ speech could help dispel perceptions that Hialeah students couldn’t succeed academically beyond local schools.

“That the president of Harvard University would actually go out of his way to speak at the high school, it says something to the kids,” Martin said. “It says basically we’re not just looking at the kids from Exeter and the prep schools in New England—we’re looking at schools from all over, we’ll take talented and sharp kids whether they’re from New York City or Hialeah, Fla.”

As University Officials were preparing for Summers’ trip to Florida they heard about Hialeah’s success from Florida alumni and the Harvard Community.

Harvard spokesperson Lucie McNeil wrote in an e-mail that Summers “wanted to stop in because it sounded like a great place to see and hear about a great comprehensive school that is doing great things for its kids—including prepping them for places like Harvard and MIT.”

—Staff writer Elisabeth S. Theodore can be reached at theodore@fas.harvard.edu.

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