LINCOLN PARK — The 30 minutes felt like an eternity for Enrique Casas Jr.
He was supposed to receive an email from Harvard University's admissions office at exactly 4 p.m. March 27 to let him know whether he had been accepted into his dream school.
The email didn't arrive into his inbox until 4:30 p.m.
"Waiting for that email was the most painful 30 minutes of my life. I refreshed my email account about every five seconds for those 30 minutes," Casas said.
But the delay was worth it when the 20-year-old, of Brighton Park, saw the words "Congratulations" and "Class of 2018" while scrolling through the message.
"Everything in between was a blur, and I immediately felt my heart to start beating out of control," Casas said.
Casas is the son of Mexican immigrants who have lived in Chicago for 25 years. His mother, Elizabet, is a part-time cashier, and his father, Enrique, is a factory machine operator.
Casas graduated from Lincoln Park High School in 2012, but instead of applying to colleges as a senior, he worked the last two years to earn money for his family at the Institute of Real Estate Management. He performed mainly clerical work.
His supervisor at work, Stacy Prichisky, said Casas "will be able to handle the pressure and stress that he will surely face being a Harvard student."
Beth Gibbs, an English teacher at Lincoln Park who wrote a college recommendation letter for Casas, said he "has an incredible combination of intelligence, work ethic and sincere interest."
Richard Sauer, Casas' teacher for "20th Century Topics and History of the Americas," said Casas displays "a true love of learning."
"I have taught many bright students, but Enrique is one of a handful of students who truly enjoy learning and see the process as more than a means to an end," Sauer said.
Perhaps that's because of the effort Casas has put forth to be accepted into one of the world's greatest universities.
"I truly believe that there is an innate sense of determination that comes with being a first-generation son of immigrants," he said. "This led me to work as hard as I possibly could to be the best student and the best person I could possibly be."
Work, work and more work
This month, Casas is backpacking through Europe, hitting stops in London, Paris and Berlin. He's not staying at fancy hotels, instead heading to hostels and even sleeping at train stations.
"I felt that I had earned a proper vacation after so many years of nonstop work," Casas said. "[And] I had never been anywhere in my life other than Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Mexico."
Almost all of his childhood was spent in Brighton Park, and his schooling took place at Richard Edwards Elementary.
There, Casas said he recalled being offered drugs in fifth grade — "I refused and always have," he said. Once, he said he was called out of the classroom because teachers thought there was marijuana in his locker. They found nothing but books and notebooks.
"Sadly, episodes like these did not surprise any of the students," Casas said.
Casas focused on his books and was introduced to guitar in sixth grade by teacher Richard Meyers, who gave free lessons every morning before class. He said those sessions were the start of a "mentally and emotionally stimulating relationship with music."
His life in high school continued to center on music, and he was a member of Lincoln Park's orchestra. Casas also paid Meyers' generosity forward, offering free lessons at his house.
Music was just one of many extracurricular activities for Casas while he attended Lincoln Park High, where he commuted 90 minutes each way on two trains just to make the first bell.
In his prep years, he taught English to immigrants and helped them fill out citizenship or job applications. From home online, he also served as a translator for a clinic in Mexico that focuses on gastric bypass surgery. He would participate as a go-between in calls between clients who mainly came from the United States and the Spanish-speaking clinic employees.
This was all while taking the rigorous class load of Lincoln Park's International Baccalaureate program.
"His success is a demonstration of his determination and maturity," Sauer said.
Hearing from Harvard
After Casas graduated with honors, Sauer urged him to attend college immediately. But Casas said he needed to earn cash for his family first. He had interned at the Institute of Real Estate Management as a high school senior, and he was hired as a full-time employee a few weeks after graduating.
He stayed at the institute until March 14, and spent the last few months concentrating on college applications.
"Enrique knew there was more out there for him than a life of making copies, entering data, or compiling packets for mailings," Prichisky said.
Casas applied to all eight Ivy League schools and said he was accepted at Brown, Cornell and Dartmouth. He also got into Amherst College, Williams College and Pomona College, plus the University of Illinois, Davidson College, Trinity College, Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He said Harvard was one of the last schools to notify him. He was surrounded by his parents and friends when he clicked on the congratulatory Crimson email.
"I immediately jumped up out of my chair and screamed 'I got in!' and everyone asked, 'Where?' and I yelled back, 'Harvard! We all proceeded to jump and scream hysterically," Casas said. "There was a big family hug filled with tears of happiness and disbelief."
A few weeks later, he returned to work wearing a jacket. He unzipped it in front of Prichisky, revealing a Harvard T-shirt.
"You could hear the staff's cheers and screams throughout the office," Prichisky said.
Casas will arrive at Harvard in September, and Gibbs, of Lincoln Park, said he will "bring an edge."
"He hasn't had the advantages that most other Harvard kids have had," she said.
Casas said he wants to major in computer science because Harvard's program mirrors the one at Lincoln Park.
Casas has never set foot on Harvard's campus. And he remains shocked that he's going there.
"I still can't believe it. I don't think I will believe it until I am physically there for the first time."
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