The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

His joyous acceptance to Cornell went viral. Tragedy struck on a campus visit.

New York teen's college acceptance celebration goes viral. (Video: Danielle Leach)

Last December, Winston Perez Ventura, a senior at Democracy Prep Harlem High School in New York, was huddled in front of an open MacBook, sporting a Cornell sweatshirt. Surrounding him were more than a dozen friends and classmates; some held their cellphones up at the ready. All were anxiously waiting for Winston to click something on the laptop.

Cornell University was his dream school. Had they accepted him? Winston was on the cusp of finding out.

“Are you ready?” Winston asked his mother, seated to his left. She smiled nervously.

There was the slightest movement. Then Winston’s hands flew up to his face, as if in prayer, before he pounded the table with his right fist and shouted, “Yes!” Someone shrieked. Soon, the entire room was filled with screams and messy hugs and people who were openly sobbing.

Video from the moving scene was uploaded to Facebook, where it was viewed tens of thousands of times, capturing the hearts of complete strangers for its unbridled elation.

“Crying tears of joy as if he was my son,” one woman wrote on Facebook. “Congrats sweetie you’ve made a lot of people proud of you.”

Eight months later, those who cheered Winston’s success story are reeling from reports of his untimely death, after he apparently drowned over the weekend during a campus visit, university officials said.

Winston had been participating in a seven-week, on-campus summer program for incoming freshmen when he went swimming in Fall Creek on the afternoon of Aug. 5, according to a university statement. While the gorges near the campus are a popular recreation area for students, swimming is prohibited there at all times. In 2011, a Cornell student died in a drowning accident in one gorge, prompting the school to start a gorge safety education program in his name.

A university spokesman told The Washington Post there were no scheduled summer program activities near the gorge on the day Winston died, to his knowledge.

At around 2:30 p.m. that day, Ithaca police responded to a call about a swimmer who had entered the gorge but not yet resurfaced. Soon, a massive search — involving helicopters and dive teams — was underway across the area’s gorges and waterways, police said.

Nearly five hours later, a dive team pulled Winston’s body from the Ithaca Falls Gorge. There was no foul play suspected, police said. Winston was 17 years old.

“The Ithaca gorges are so, so beautiful but they can be very dangerous if folks don’t obey the posted signs,” acting Ithaca police chief Pete Tyler said in a statement. “I encourage everyone to please, please follow the posted signs on the gorge trails, especially those that prohibit trespassing and swimming. The signs are in place for no other reason than to keep folks safe when they enter our gorges.”

The news stunned those at Cornell, where Winston had been slated to start classes at the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning this fall.

“At the risk of making admissions sound overly romanticized, there are some students you just have a feeling about, that this is one stop on their ultimate path to individual greatness,” Maureen Carroll, director of admissions for the architecture college, said through the school. “They are unquantifiably special. Winston was one of them.”

During the summer program, Winston kept a handwritten note on his desk that read, “All I can be is myself, but better than I was yesterday,” according to one of the program’s co-leaders.

“I write with deep sadness regarding the tragic loss of one of the newest members of our Cornell community,” Ryan Lombardi, Cornell’s vice president for student and campus life, said in a statement about Winston’s death. “He was an exceptional person who would have contributed greatly to our university community.”

Winston was supposed to be the first one in his family to go to college.

Born in the Dominican Republic, Winston had immigrated to the United States when he was 9-years-old, rejoining his mother who had moved first to put down roots, ABC News reported.

“It’s been tough for her,” Winston told the news station in December. “It’s been tough for me.”

But his mother, Agnelli Gutierrez, said focusing on education had been their priority: “Immigrants sometimes we cannot have maybe so much of a heritage to leave to our kids, but education is the main thing that we can definitely give for them,” she told ABC News then.

Less than a year later, she and Winston’s stepfather were returning from a final trip to Upstate New York where they had gathered their son’s belongings.

“I feel destroyed,” Gutierrez told the New York Daily News.

In a statement, Democracy Prep Public Schools said its community was “devastated” at news of Winston’s death:

Winston’s selflessness, bravery, positivity, and good humor enriched our schools and touched the lives of all those fortunate enough to have interacted with him. The overwhelming joy with which his peers and teachers celebrated his acceptance to Cornell last winter was a reflection of both his boundless promise and his powerful effect on others.
Winston worked relentlessly to earn an opportunity to succeed in the college of his choice, and we are heartbroken that his journey was cut tragically short just as he was on the verge of realizing that dream.

On Sunday, Winston’s stepfather started a GoFundMe account to raise money for Winston’s funeral. In just two days, the campaign exceeded its $20,000 goal.

“It is comforting to see how much our son was loved, and although we’re not really sure how our lives will continue after such a tragedy, the love and support you have shown help push us forward,” the family wrote. “Again, we are infinitely grateful. From the very bottom of our broken hearts, thank you.”

A memorial service for Winston will be held today in the Bronx, according to the family.

Read more:

‘This country has been amazing for us’: From refugee camp, to Cornell, to a Rhodes Scholarship

A 12-year-old is off to the Ivy League. ‘It’s a challenge to keep him challenged,’ his dad says.

‘Giving up wasn’t an option’: How one man beat the odds to graduate from college