Student who created leadership program accepted to seven Ivy League schools

MERCEDES — Esteban Flores is a natural-born leader.

The 18-year-old senior at the Science Academy of South Texas in Mercedes created a summer leadership program several years ago as a means of assisting a nonprofit organization, the Rio Grande Valley Family Leadership Academy, in preparing incoming ninth graders for public speaking.

His efforts have yielded the assistance of his fellow classmates, which began with five and grew to 25, and have garnered him praise from educators as well as the attention of Ivy League schools, of which he’s been accepted to seven.

“Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth,” Esteban said on Thursday, listing the higher learning institutions where he’s received acceptance letters. “I have pretty high grades and scores, but I think what made me stand out was the program; having my own staff of high school students and running it ourselves, with the exception of one adult.”

The program, referred to as IDRGV, accepts eighth grade students from throughout the Rio Grande Valley through an application and recruitment process. In this its third year, Esteban said participants meet every Sunday and often during the weekdays to engage in public speaking exercises and critical thinking as it relates to leadership development.

Among such exercises is a mock trial which, as the program’s creator explained, has helped produce a more confident freshmen class.

When considering that a curriculum was designed for the program at the time Esteban was a sophomore, it’s evident why many are impressed with his efforts.

“It’s a lot of hours of working one on one with them,” Esteban said of the program’s scope. “The program is pretty much based on public speaking as a form of leadership, because it doesn’t matter how great your ideas are if you can’t communicate them. So we help them if they have the skills and abilities to do that. We do a lot of team activities in the program. There’s a wide-variety of different activities we do to help them develop those skills.”

Before the program launched, Esteban said he researched online resources and spoke to professionals, such as attorneys, in an effort to evaluate the exercises that make up the program today.

“The nonprofit organization we work with wanted an eighth grade program because we have a ninth grade one, so I took it upon myself to tackle it,” he added. “We recruited and did all the logistical work, too.”

Now that he’s chosen to attend Harvard, Esteban plans to hone his own leadership talents notably exhibited during his work to build the program from scratch. And although he hasn’t settled on a major, he’s considering physics, math, political science and philosophy.

With regard to the impact of the program he’ll leave behind, Esteban recalled, “The first year we did it, there was this really shy student who, in the beginning, wouldn’t say a thing and would just stand in the back. Our program concentrates on public speaking exercises, so it was pretty tough on her. But we worked with her, and when had a mock trial she ended up winning a competition to see who would be the attorney. Now, she’s on the school’s mock trial team as an attorney. That was important to see … how kids can really improve themselves.”