EDINBURG — What started as a mindset to reach higher and encourage others to do the same led this high school senior to recognition from the White House, an invitation to conduct a TED Talk in New York and even travel to China with other student leaders.
“I really felt that there was a lot of negativity and that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do in life,” Michael Mireles, 17, said about growing up in the Rio Grande Valley. “Now that I have the opportunity to kind of expose that idea and get it out to other people, I’m going to spearhead it. I definitely want to inspire other kids to do even better things.”
Mireles is a senior at IDEA Quest and on Sunday he will receive the U.S. Presidential Scholars medal, becoming the first award recipient from the area since at least 2003.
The award is considered by the U.S. Department of Education to be one of the nation’s highest honors and is given to up to 161 high-achieving students. They are selected according to their accomplishments in college admission tests, arts, or career and technical education.
Mireles recently spearheaded the efforts to put together the first South Texas Ideas festival, or STXi, a student-led conference in which students and local professionals featured the positive aspects of the Rio Grande Valley and talked about the importance of education and civic involvement.
After the festival the good news kept pouring in for Mireles who received an invitation to conduct a TED Talk in New York on Saturday, right before his White House appearance. He will also be one of 12 students to travel to China for the 2017 Student Leaders Exchange with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.
“This is what a Presidential Scholar kid looks like,” said Marcos Silva, teacher at IDEA Quest who led the student’s efforts to put together the STXi Festival. “What Michael is doing and what his classmates is redefining the perception that kids have on certain titles. I wish there were more kids just taking this leap of faith and believing in themselves to kind of just say ‘I can do that. I look like that. I’m on the same spot he was.’”
Mireles attributes his “why not me?” mentality and sense of community engagement to Silva’s encouragement and disposition to figure things out together. All of the planning for the festival and applications for different programs were new for the entire class, including Silva, but they learned together as a team.
“I don’t think there was ever a moment where Silva told me that I couldn’t do something,” Mireles said. “It was always about ‘Let’s go! Make that phone call or write that email …’ There was never a time when he didn’t support you.”
He nominated Silva for the 2017 U.S. Presidential Scholars Program’s Distinguished Teachers, and the two will attend the White House ceremony.
Silva said there were many lessons learned on his part as well, which went beyond just putting an event together or learning how to fill out applications for these awards.
“I feel like with enough time and enough attention any kid can get to where they want to be,” Silva said. “You just never know what is behind a person. You never know the potential. You never know the story.”
Mireles was raised by his grandparents — Francisco and Maria Guadalupe Mireles — in Alton. Having already been accepted to Brown University and pre-accepted to their medical program, he will soon be first one in his family to go to college.
Growing up in a low-income family and one that didn’t always understand the education system and what opportunities are available wasn’t easy, he said. He recalls many hurdles along the way that pointed in the direction of not being able to accomplish much, but rather than letting these deter him from moving forward, he said he wants to learn how to make a difference.
“Growing up with them really showed me what’s valuable and what matters, because we never really had a lot when I was growing up,” he said. “I’m glad I have that type of background to kind of not push me so far to go out on my own and do things for me. I really try to do a lot of the things I do to help others.”
Even though he doesn’t know his exact path yet, the teen has always known he wants to seek a career in the medical field and to one day come back to the Valley to establish a practice, he said.
As for his teacher, the hope is that through the accomplishments of students like Mireles, others might take on the initiative to showcase themselves and nurture that “why not me?” mentality.
“There is a story behind everyone,” Silva said. “It’s really up to us to kind of evolve what we want our own narrative to be and I think that as cliché as it sounds, we are in charge of that.”