“Y’all, I’m gonna press ‘View Update,’ ” Micheal said. His classmates huddled around the screen, camera phones at the ready.
A second later, the room erupted in screams.
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” Micheal, 17, shouted in disbelief. He leaped from his chair and burst into tears.
Berthinia Rutledge-Brown hugged her son as he wept.
“You made it!” one of his friends yelled, as the teens closed in on Micheal for a group hug for the ages.
What Micheal and his mother didn’t know then was that Stanford would be only the beginning of an unbelievable run. Over the next several months, more acceptances would roll in for the standout student at Houston’s Lamar High School.
Among them were Yale, Princeton, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, the University of Texas at Austin and Georgetown (the only one to send a paper letter, he noted).
And finally, last week, Harvard.
In all, Micheal applied to 20 colleges — and was accepted to all 20 of them, with full rides to each, in the form of both scholarships and financial aid.
“I was nervous for each one because no one ever wants to be rejected, but especially for Stanford,” Micheal told The Washington Post in a text interview, conducted as he navigated classes Monday. “And I did not expect and or think I’d get into all schools until I got into Stanford.”
The unusual feat is not without precedent — but it remains astounding considering the record-low acceptance rates at some of the schools.
And at Lamar High School in the Houston Independent School District, which has more than 3,300 students, more than half of the student body is considered at risk of dropping out.
“If you look strictly at statistics and demographics, then the cards were stacked against him,” Lamar High School principal James McSwain told the Houston Chronicle.
For Rutledge-Brown, her son’s success is all the more poignant because of their “amazing little journey.” Micheal was her “rainbow baby,” she said — born after she had lost three pregnancies before him. And she noted that, although she got divorced when her son was in elementary school, Micheal’s father has remained in his son’s life.
“Mike’s a good kid. He’s been easy to raise,” she told The Post. “I’m really grateful. … [Early on] I noticed that Mike was very smart, so I knew that he needed to be challenged.”
She said Micheal really became focused on his education in the sixth grade.
“He made the decisions, so I just kind of backed up and let him do his thing,” Rutledge-Brown said. “The one thing I did insist upon is that if he started something that he didn’t quit in the middle.”
Partway through a stint with his seventh-grade football team, for example, Micheal knew the sport wasn’t for him. He didn’t like hurting people and it was interfering with his grades, she remembers him saying.
But his mom insisted he play through to the end of the semester.
“I said, you don’t quit in the middle. You don’t quit on your team,” she said. “You see it through to the end, and if you don’t want to play after that, that’s fine.”
To his credit, Micheal finished the season and picked up tennis instead. In high school, he discovered other extracurricular activities that he loved — debate, Key Club and student government, to name but a few from his lengthy résumé — and really set his sights on going to college.
Along the way, Micheal developed strong friendships with his classmates (“especially his debate team”), teachers and counselors who were equally instrumental in pushing him, his mother said.
“His friends: It’s like a little rainbow nation,” Rutledge-Brown said. “They don’t see race the way we do. They don’t see class the way we do. They just see each other. And I feel like if we, as adults, just back off and just let this generation do what they’re doing … they can make this world a much better place.”
His mother also credited programs such as Breakthrough Houston and Emerge — both of which help students from low-income and underrepresented communities find ways to go to college — for opening pathways to college for Micheal. Rutledge-Brown told the New York Times that she cried at an Emerge orientation when she became aware that Micheal could go to a university that previously seemed inaccessible.
“I cried because I realized that there was a chance that my child would get the education he deserves — the one I could not afford to pay for,” she told the newspaper.
Meanwhile, Micheal said it was his mother who inspired him to push himself.
When he was in elementary school, Rutledge-Brown returned to school at Houston Community College to earn her associate degree. She now works as a chemical-dependency counselor and says her dream is to open transitional-living facilities for people in recovery.
Her efforts then were not lost on her young son.
“After she got divorced, she decided she needed to get a better job,” Micheal told the Houston Chronicle. “That’s the first time I understood what going to college might look like. And seeing how important it was to my mom was important to me. I don’t even think she really knew that I saw, that it had an impact on me — but it did.”
When it came time to apply to college, Micheal had already achieved an impressive high school academic record (a 4.68 GPA, a 1540 on the SAT and a 34 on the ACT) to go with his extracurricular and volunteer activities. For his essays, he wrote about his late grandmother, as well as how much he loved politics “and how I would focus on making the world better in my future.”
He applied to Stanford first — but also 19 other schools that he could see himself going to.
“He’s very methodical. He thinks through what he’s doing,” Rutledge-Brown said.
Micheal now has a month to weigh his many options before making his decision. While he had previously been set on Stanford, whose early admission was non-binding, he now says he’s not sure. He spent the weekend on a beach trip with his friends, who celebrated by writing the names of all 20 colleges that had accepted Micheal into the sand — and also fielding media calls.
His mother said the attention has been jarring for her son, who tends to be shy, but that he decided to share his story in case it gives other students hope.
“I want to remain humble through all this,” Micheal said Monday. “Out of all the students to achieve similar feats, I am just very happy and very honored to share my story and inspire other students.”