Dream big, teen was told; now he’s going to Princeton

Student in purple graduation regalia with his arms crossed at the end of a long hallway

Alejandro Pliego, 18, in a hallway of Rock Academy in Liberty Station, is heading to Princeton. He’s the first in his family to attend a four-year university. (Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

By Diane Bell, San Diego Union-Tribune 

Princeton was rated by U.S. News & World Report as the No. 1 national university in the United States in 2023. It has fewer than 6,000 undergraduates and a low 4.4 percent applicant acceptance rate.

Alejandro Pliego, whose father is a chef in Little Italy and whose mother works for a dry cleaner, has defied the odds.

The 18-year-old high school senior has just become the first member of his Hispanic family to attend a four-year college. Not only will Pliego be going to Princeton, but he has received a full scholarship.

He’s the first student from the Rock Academy, a small private Christian school in Liberty Station, to attend Princeton, although in the Rock Academy’s 21-year history several students have been accepted at one of the elite Ivy League colleges.

Pliego got word of his Princeton acceptance when he refreshed his laptop during his English class. “I couldn’t focus on my classwork because I knew the decision was coming out,” he recalls. When the notification “view update” popped up, his classmates gathered around and he opened it.

The news rippled through Rock Academy halls like a joyful tidal wave.

“Everyone was shocked, and my principal poured out an entire rainstorm of tears,” he said during an interview at the school. “It felt like I was leaving a legacy worth remembering.”

“The whole school stopped,” says Principal Michelle Glenn. “Down the halls everybody started crying and jumping up and down and praising God. It was probably two minutes from the time it happened in the classroom on the floor above that I heard about it.”

Pliego was most touched when a 6-year-old student he had never met congratulated him on getting into college later that day. He had become a role model — a dream come true.

When he attended junior high at KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy, part of a national charter school chain, Pliego embraced the college prep school’s slogan at the time: “Work hard. Be nice.” and its unofficial third component, “Dream big.” He was most passionate about dreaming big. And it paid off.

Not only did he earn a four-year, full-ride scholarship from QuestBridge, which connects low-income and first-gen students with partner colleges, he received official notification Sunday of a second scholarship.

He was awarded a $60,000 scholarship from KIPP, a national charter school network that focuses on low-income students striving to be the first in their families to attend a four-year university.

Pliego, who lives in Bankers Hill, now has dreams of parlaying his Princeton major in public policy and minor in global health into a career with the United Nations or possibly the World Health Organization. Alternatively, he wants to create his own nonprofit to help marginalized countries abroad and communities in need.

He credits Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and H. Puentes for inspiring him.

Obama because she overcame obstacles and self-doubt to succeed as a minority student at Princeton. Lady Gaga because she co-wrote and sang the song “Alejandro,” which spoke to him personally, and H. Puentes, co-founder of San Diego Squared, which encourages minority students to pursue STEM careers, because he was a relentless cheerleader.

“He was always pushing me,” Pliego says. “He was always enabling students like me to go forward in whatever career path they wanted.”

Puentes says it’s students like Alejandro who inspire San Diego Squared creators to continue searching for the next generation of leaders for innovative companies.

“What I realized quickly after working with Alejandro was that he isn’t just a leader among other students, but rather he is a leader among leaders,” Puentes says. “The secret to Alejandro’s success is his humility and humanity. He cares deeply about leaving the world better place than he found it.”

Surprisingly, Pliego describes himself as a shy child, a youngster without a voice. He also says he wasn’t the smartest kid. Neither are true today.

He found his voice and used it as an ASB student leader, a student ambassador for Rock Academy’s Admissions department and as a captain of his track and field team.

Rock Academy Academic Dean Natalie Williamson says he’s also a talented photographer whose pictures depict causes about which he is passionate.

He is finishing his senior year as valedictorian of his class with an impressive 4.32 cumulative grade point average. (The average GPA of this year’s Princeton freshmen is reported to be 3.9.)

When I spoke to Pliego, he had just met with some top executives who were Princeton alumni at Illumina, a San Diego-based genetics research firm. He also was preparing to have a Zoom meeting with another Princeton grad, the chief of staff of the U.S. deputy secretary of education.

He is applying for an eight-week summer program at Princeton for low-income students and considering pursuing a Princeton-sponsored gap year abroad program.

His greatest challenge was, as a first-gen, low-income Hispanic student, feeling he had to push himself harder to compete against applicants with more connections, resources and family support.

“Dream big” are his words of advice to other first-gen kids. “Nothing is impossible. There is always an opportunity out there for you.”

A surprise Rock Academy reunion of the Creath family, clockwise from left: Karis, Jordan, Julez Wood, 15, & Jayzel Creath, 8. (Courtesy of Rock Academy)

Not long after I spoke to Pliego, Rock Academy students joined in a Friday afternoon assembly that seemed more like a pep rally. Near the end, emcee Darnell Uhland called for a pair of sibling students to come to the stage to answer a quiz in exchange for a gift.

Up bounced second-grader Jayzel Creath, 8, and his sister, 10th-grader Julez Woods. When Jayzel answered the quiz question, Uhland went backstage to retrieve their “gift.”

He returned with their father, Jordan Creath, who had just returned from a six-month deployment for the Navy. He had flown home that morning from Kuwait to surprise his kids.

The audience erupted with clapping and cries of joy. And there was no shortage of happy tears.

“He took on this deployment so that our daughter could finish her sophomore year at the same school with her friends,” explained his wife, Karis.

It was a special gift, indeed.

This story was originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune.