Wiregrass Ranch High School senior Luis Pereira doesn’t take his freedom for granted.
Less than two years ago, his family arrived in Wesley Chapel — after emigrating from Venezuela to seek political asylum in the United States.
Since that time, the 19-year-old has managed to be inducted into the National Society of High School Scholars, has won the TEDX Talk competition at Wiregrass and has been awarded a scholarship to Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.
The scholars society was established in 2002 by James W. Lewis and Claes Nobel. Nobel is the senior member of the family that established the Nobel Prizes.
The society recognizes “top scholars who have demonstrated outstanding leadership, scholarship and community commitment,” according to a news release announcing Pereira’s induction. The society helps to advance the goals and aspirations of high-achieving students through learning experiences, scholarships, internships, international study and peer networks.
Despite his achievements, it hasn’t been an easy road for Pereira.
His family moved to Wiregrass Ranch because of the difficult political situation in Venezuela.
“I was part of an opposition group, since I was 14. I was active in protests and demonstrations against the government.
“It wasn’t good for my family. We started receiving threats,” Pereira said.
His dad received calls about the family being watched.
“They said: ‘I saw your wife, picking up the kids. You should look out for them. You should take care of them,’” Pereira said. “Imagine living everyday knowing that there is someone who wants to hurt you.
“A year and a half ago, we decided this is too dangerous for us,” he said.
Besides his parents, Luis Sr. and Madelin, Pereira has two little brothers, Guillermo, 12, and Santiago, 10.
Initially, the family moved in with relatives in the Wiregrass Ranch area, but that didn’t work out.
“At one point, we were homeless,” he said.
“When the people at Wiregrass (Ranch High School) found out, it was amazing. The community got together and found out ways to help my family. They gave us food. They gave us money. They found us a place to stay. They’ve been helping us through this process of trying to settle in a new country. I had a lot of support from my teachers, from the staff at Wiregrass,” he said.
The communities of John Long Middle School and Double Branch Elementary School also were incredibly kind, Pereira said. His brother, Guillermo, attends John Long, and his other brother, Santiago, attends Double Branch.
Education is important to the family.
Pereira scored a 1340 on the SAT, and carries a 3.87 grade point on a scale of 4.0. He’s taking Advanced Placement Chemistry, Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Advancement Placement English Literature, among his other classes.
“I’m very interested in speech and debate. I really like the fact that by speaking out you can influence people, to change their outlook on things. I think that’s really amazing,” he said.
One of things he enjoys most about being in the United States is being able to freely share his thoughts and beliefs.
“Just being able to express myself here, to be able to say what I believe is right. That’s amazing. It’s a right that I’ve never had in my life,” Pereira said.
Pereira aspires to become a brain surgeon.
“It is different from psychology, in that you are investigating what drives human behavior, but you are investigating it from a biological point. You want to know the process that makes people do stuff,” he said.
Pereira said his interest in medicine was influenced by his father, who was a pharmacist in Venezuela. His mom taught elementary school there.
Now, his mom cleans homes and his dad works in a retail store. Pereira recently landed a job at McDonald’s.
He plans to continue his education, and at the moment his primary choice for college is Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.
He applied there after seeing a flier that noted the architectural similarity between the campus and Hogwarts University in the Harry Potter novels.
“I did some research about the school, and I liked it,” he said.
He applied in November, and they called him to let him know he’d been accepted in January.
And, they invited him to the college’s scholarship weekend.
He qualified to compete in the Civic Engagement scholarship category.
“I had to do a presentation about how I participated in civic engagement and leadership in my everyday life. And, out of 102, they selected two people, and I was one of them,” he said.
Still, attending the university is no sure thing.
“The main problem — everything takes money,” he said.
“I haven’t committed yet. I don’t have the money. It’s $300 to pay the deposit,” he said, noting the scholarship covers tuition, but not housing.
He has a job now, and that will help, but he still needs to raise money for housing and other college expenses.
He recently set up a GoFundMe account at GoFundMe.com/kharmcdc, in case anyone wants to help.
Pereira is not sure where he will end up, but he wants to continue his education.
“I feel a responsibility to give back to the community that’s helped me. That’s one of my main goals of going to college, to be able to come back and help the community that gave my family so much,” Pereira said.
Published March 29, 2017