Harvard bound

Weston-McEwen High School graduate Michael Shafer stands on Athena's Main Street Friday. After vowing to attend Harvard University as a four or five-year-old, Shafer will attend the Ivy League university in the fall.

On Friday, it seemed like everyone in Athena stopped to say hello as Michael Shafer posed to get his picture taken for his latest achievement.

As Michael stood on Main Street across from the Athena Post Office, a man walking by stopped to talk with his father about the media attention being bestowed on the 18-year-old wearing a “Harvard Class of 2021” shirt.

“He got his brains from his mother,” John Shafer quipped.

One of the owners hopped out of the Sugar Shack Espresso Bar & Sweet Shoppe across the street to wave at Michael and a UPS driver briefly stopped to joke that she wanted to get into the picture before speeding off. This is life in downtown Athena. It’s Michael’s life, until he switches coasts to attend the most prestigious university in the country.

Michael’s shirt isn’t aspirational. He will start taking classes at Harvard University this fall.

Applying to the Cambridge, Massachusetts college isn’t a fly-by-night proposition: it takes years of careful groundwork and rigorous study to gain admission.

Although that preparation usually starts before high school, going to Harvard has been Michael’s near lifelong dream.

Amy Shafer remembers talking with her sons about college when Michael was four or five-years-old, a frequent topic of discussion while their father was taking college classes of his own.

Michael’s brother Matthew asked Amy what was the closest college, to which his mother replied Blue Mountain Community College.

After Matthew declared his allegiance to BMCC, Michael asked what was the best college to attend. Amy’s answer began Michael’s unwavering commitment to becoming a Harvard Crimson.

Ann Vescio, Michael’s fifth-grade teacher and now the principal of Weston Middle School, said the clarity of Michael’s goal made him stick out.

“I think when you have a 10-year-old saying he wants to go to Harvard, it stands out,” she said.

Vescio stayed in touch with Michael as he ascended grade levels and helped him hone his admissions essay when it came time to apply. Vescio helped Michael develop his essay’s theme around how rural students needed to make their own opportunities.

By that time, Michael had created opportunities for himself and his classmates.

When Michael jumped from middle school to Weston-McEwen High School, he wrote his own grants to bring iPads to the school.

By the time he finished high school, he had compiled a list of accolades worthy of an Ivy Leaguer — student class president, valedictorian, 4-H ambassador, holder of an associates degree.

The extracurriculars were matched by a 4.27 GPA and a 1390 SAT score, a score he had been honing since he first started taking the SAT in eighth grade.

Despite all of Michael’s accomplishments, there was no guarantee it would translate into a Harvard acceptance letter.

According to the Harvard admissions website, the university admitted only 5 percent of the students who applied for the class of 2021.

Complicating things further, only 15 percent of Harvard’s student population are first generation college students, the rest having parents who have graduated from a four-year university. John has an associates degree from Walla Walla Community College while Amy took some college classes but doesn’t have a degree.

In the days leading up to Harvard’s decision, the Shafers were getting mixed signals.

John said Duke University sent a letter denying admission, which shook their confidence a little, but Georgetown University gave Michael a thumbs up.

March 30 was the day the Ivy League schools sent their acceptance emails, putting any doubt to rest.

“I knew that with his work ethic, if anyone was going to get into Harvard, it was going to be him,” John said.

While Harvard has been a constant goal, his professional interests are a little more fluid.

Michael spent time wanting to become a doctor and a lawyer but his focus is now settled on politics.

It helped that his father became the mayor of Athena and the Shafers’ longtime family friend was state Sen. Bill Hansell, an Athena native.

As Michael’s interest in politics sharpened, Hansell said he began inviting him to Salem, making him an honorary page and having him sit in on meetings.

Hansell said Michael’s interests could change once he gets to college. But if he sticks with politics, the state senator thinks Michael could make a great government official.

Harvard has an alumni base that would make any political aspirant excited — eight presidents have attended Harvard in addition to countless senators, representatives and elected officials from around the world.

Despite all his excitement and career possibilities, Michael acknowledges Cambridge is a very different city than Athena.

Maggie Armato knows that firsthand.

The Heppner High School graduate was the first Morrow County resident to ever attend Harvard, a fact that didn’t escape Michael.

Shortly after she received her acceptance letter Armato met Michael, then a sixth grader, at the Great Pacific Wine & Coffee Co. in Pendleton.

Back then, Armato delivered advice on how to build his résumé to attend the school. Now, Armato now has the benefit of hindsight as a Harvard graduate. Surrounded by legacy students and magnet school alums, Armato remembers feeling like a Harvard official would come to her dorm to tell her that they had made a mistake in admitting her.

She went from knowing the same classmates from preschool to high school, to being surrounded by an international student body.

Now an operations worker for a financial services startup in the San Francisco Bay Area, Armato urged Michael to embrace the newfound diversity Harvard has to offer.

For his part Michael seems ready for it, having already visited the campus a few times. “I want to get my experience on the East Coast,” he said.

When the summer ends, John and Michael will pack their bags and make the cross-country road trip to Massachusetts. True to form, they plan on stopping at several state capitals and presidential libraries along the way.


Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.

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