It’s been 16 years since the first of Ray and Rose Chavez’s five children graduated from Harvard. This year’s Commencement will mark the culmination of a dream when Elena, the fifth and last from a family that scrimped and saved their way to five Harvard educations, receives her diploma.
“My parents would make any sacrifice for education,” Elena Chavez said. “One of the main things for my mom was to have a voice. [She taught us to] take pride in our heritage, speak the language and at the same time be part of the best academic institution in the country.”
Several dozen family, friends, and Harvard officials gathered at Phillips Brooks House on June 5 to honor Ray and Rose, celebrate Elena’s graduation, and mark the achievement of a family dream that has drawn national media attention.
“It’s spectacular for my parents,” said Tom Chavez, who graduated in 1990. “I think my parents had everything to do with [their children’s success]. I think it’s great that they have a bright light shone on them now.”
One family myth has it that Rose decided when she was young to either enter a convent or to have five kids and send them all to Harvard. Rose said the story isn’t completely true, but she and her husband did push for their children to get a good education.
“We feel happy and proud of them,” Rose said. “We just wanted them all to get educated.”
Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis became aware of the family through Martin, the first Chavez to attend Harvard and a teaching assistant of Lewis’. Lewis said he was impressed with Martin’s intelligence and energy, and got to know Rick, Tom, and Andrea as well. Each of them not only succeeded at Harvard, but they all went on to business success in the high-tech industry.
Lewis said he was impressed with the family’s determination to succeed and the intelligence and energy with which they achieved their goal.
“I consider this a compelling story not just about Harvard but about America,” Lewis said. “This family represents the very best I could hope my country to produce.”
The seeds for the Albuquerque, N.M., family’s extraordinary flourishing were sown in Rose’s childhood, Elena said. Rose grew up poor and felt powerless. Education, she decided, was the way not only to material success, but to gain a voice in the community, Elena added.
Both Rose and Ray worked at nearby Sandia National Laboratory, where the Department of Energy conducts energy research and designs nuclear weapons components.
Growing up, the family had the basics, but money for extras like a second car or second television went toward education, Elena said. All five children attended private schools and, when the time came, applied to Harvard.
When she was in high school, Elena said she initially didn’t want to go to Harvard.
“I was convinced in my high school years that I wouldn’t go to Harvard. I felt ‘I’m not identical to my siblings, so why should I go?'” Elena said, adding that after she did decide to go, she was afraid she wouldn’t be accepted. “I was very scared that I wouldn’t get in. For me, that was more important than going.”
Today, Elena said, she’s very happy to be graduating and a bit overwhelmed at having her family here. After graduation, she’s going to Washington, D.C., to do constituent work for New Mexico’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman. She wants to deal with issues regarding welfare reform and health policy.
With a concentration in Hispanic studies, Elena isn’t following in the high-tech footsteps of her siblings. During her years at Harvard, she has volunteered her time to a variety of social service causes. This year, she worked for Project Health, manning a resource table outside the pediatrics desk at the Boston Medical Center where she referred parents to different services.
“I loved it. It totally shaped my last year at Harvard and my entire perspective,” Elena said. “My biggest goal is to be a liaison between policy-makers and the communities they represent. I think there’s a huge communication gap.”
After working for a year or two, Elena is considering graduate school in public policy, possibly back at Harvard at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Contact Alvin Powell at firstname.lastname@example.org