Dream big, teen was told. Now he’s going to Princeton
Alejandro Pliego from the Rock Academy at Liberty Station will be the first in his family to attend a four-year college, and it’s at the Ivy League university on a full scholarship.
Princeton, rated by U.S. News & World Report as the No. 1 university in the United States in 2023, has fewer than 6,000 undergraduates and a low 4.4 percent applicant acceptance rate.
But Alejandro Pliego, whose father is a chef in San Diego’s Little Italy and whose mother works for a dry cleaner, has defied those odds.
The 18-year-old high school senior at the Rock Academy, a small private Christian school at Liberty Station in Point Loma, will become the first member of his family to attend a four-year college. And not only will he be going to Princeton but he has received a full scholarship.
He’s also the first student from the Rock Academy to attend Princeton, though in the Rock Academy’s 21-year history, several students have been accepted at other elite Ivy League colleges.
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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 recalled. When the notification “view update” popped up, his classmates gathered around and he opened it.
The news rippled through the Rock Academy halls like a joyful tidal wave.
“Everyone was shocked, and my principal poured out an entire rainstorm of tears,” Pliego said. “It felt like I was leaving a legacy worth remembering.”
“The whole school stopped,” said 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 later that day on getting into college. He had become a role model — a dream come true.
When he attended junior high school at San Diego’s 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-generation students with partner colleges, but he received notification that he was awarded a $60,000 scholarship from KIPP, which 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 a nonprofit to help marginalized countries abroad and communities in need.
“Nothing is impossible. There is always an opportunity out there for you.”
— Alejandro Pliego
For inspiration, he credits former first lady Michelle Obama, singer-actress Lady Gaga and H. Puentes, co-founder of San Diego Squared, which encourages minority students to pursue careers in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math.
He chose 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 Puentes because he was a relentless cheerleader.
“He was always pushing me,” Pliego said. “He was always enabling students like me to go forward in whatever career path they wanted.”
Puentes said students like Pliego 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 said. “The secret to Alejandro’s success is his humility and humanity. He cares deeply about leaving the world a better place than he found it.”
Pliego describes himself as a shy child and says he wasn’t the smartest kid. But neither is true today.
He found his voice and used it as an Associated Student Body leader, a student ambassador for Rock Academy’s admissions department and a captain of his track and field team.
Rock Academy Academic Dean Natalie Williamson said he’s also a talented photographer whose pictures depict causes he is passionate about.
Pliego is finishing his senior year as valedictorian of his class with a 4.32 cumulative grade point average. (The average GPA of this year’s Princeton freshmen is reported to be 3.9.)
He met recently with some top executives and 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.
He said 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.
But “Dream big” are his words of advice to other first-gen kids. “Nothing is impossible,” Pliego said. “There is always an opportunity out there for you.”