PALMETTO -- Elizabeth Garcia remembers when her struggle to read nearly caused her to be held back as a first-grader.
She also remembers how a sixth-grade teacher tried to destroy her dream of one day attending Harvard University by telling her she'd never get accepted there and should instead aspire to be a plumber.
The pain of those memories has nearly subsided. Garcia, a Palmetto resident, recently learned that she had been accepted at Harvard. And Duke, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania. A day later, she learned she was accepted at Stanford.
"It's been my goal since
the fifth-grade," says Elizabeth, who attends Braden River High and is that school's first student to be accepted at Harvard. "I found out about it in a movie, heard the name 'Harvard,' and it's stuck with me ever since."
She earned her way into the school with a flawless school record, constant community service, performing tasks like tutoring other students in Advanced Placement European history, leading countless student groups like the Future Business Leaders of America, the French Club and the National Honor Society, and writing an essay about how her family was touched by a homeless man they took in less than a year before he died.
Garcia was not only accepted into Harvard; she will have her full tuition of $60,000 a year covered by the school's financial aid program. For her parents, who have raised all four of their children for more than a decade on annual earnings of less than $25,000 a year, Elizabeth's achievements are like a reward for sacrifice.
"I remember how for a while, we tried to get her to see what the letter 'A' looked like," said Jessica Garcia, Elizabeth's mother. "It was real frustrating for us as parents when she was little. And for her too. She cried a lot."
The family hired a tutor and also worked closely with teacher Dawn Burt, who "looped" with Elizabeth's first-grade class into second-grade and continued to work with her in group and one-on-one sessions. Elizabeth remembers how one day everything just "clicked."
"Once it did, there was no stopping me," she says.
Burt remembers how Elizabeth kept an inspiring attitude in spite of her struggles to comprehend what she was reading.
"We're not supposed to have 'favorites,' but Elizabeth is one of my favorite students that I have ever had," said Burt, who was teaching at Palmetto Elementary 10 years ago and is now at Palma Sola Elementary. "She has always had an amazing personality. She always came to school with a smile on her face, and there was never a challenge she couldn't overcome."
Early on, the Garcia family decided to reward their children's A's and B's with money, said father Cesar. "They may see money, but I see the future," he remembers telling his wife.
Eventually, when times became tight and his children grew older, Cesar Garcia stopped rewarding good grades with money. But his kids, which include 16-year-old Esther and 15-year-old Juan, continue to strive for good grades. Jessica Garcia credits much of their devotion to Elizabeth's example.
"I remember her staying up late until one or two in the morning with the light on," she says. "It's rubbed off on the others."
The entire Garcia family is known among Braden High's student body as "the future Kennedys," says Jazlin Gomez, one of Elizabeth's best friends. "They're such good people, so honest and humble, and they want to make a difference but not for themselves," she says. "We just know that they're going to impact the world."
Elizabeth's classmates were so supportive of her acceptance into Harvard that they prepared several cards for her. And no wonder: Harvard is the most selective of the Ivy League schools, accepting only 5.9 percent of the 34,000-plus students who apply each year.
Her long-term goal is to become a politician, and eventually Elizabeth aspires to run for president. "Americans see politicians as corrupt people," she says. "I want to show that there is truth, to the idea that politicians can make it the right way. I want to show that if you stay true to your faith and values, you can make it right."
Christine Hawes, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Or follow her on Twitter @chawesreports.