Freshman is first to find path to Yale via Squash Haven

During a highly stressful time last fall, while he waited to hear whether he would be admitted to Yale College, Victor Padilla found some consolation in an exchange with a fifth grader.
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Victor Padilla joined Squash Haven when he first arrived in New Haven from Guatemala. He is the first Squash Haven participant to attend Yale. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

During a highly stressful time last fall, while he waited to hear whether he would be admitted to Yale College, Victor Padilla found some consolation in an exchange with a fifth grader.

“Victor, you’ve got 42 days till you hear,” exclaimed the youngster excitedly to Padilla, who had applied to Yale through the Early Action program.

“I was picking apart everything on my application and thinking about all the things I could have done better,” recalls Padilla. “When this fifth grader mentioned how long I had to wait for the decision, I realized that he had been counting right along with me! I knew then that I wasn’t the only one waiting anxiously to hear. I had a ‘family’ in my corner. Just to see that he was behind me was so heartwarming.”

The two had met as fellow participants in Squash Haven, a Yale-based program that offers academic enrichment and squash instruction to New Haven public schoolchildren. Padilla, who came to New Haven from Guatemala just two years ago, is the first Squash Haven participant to be admitted to Yale since the program was started in 2006.

“It was a very touching moment when I could tell him I got in,” says Padilla. “He and the other young people in Squash Haven want to know that big things are possible, and this proves they are!”

Rewards of humility: Padilla credits Squash Haven with helping to ease his transition to life in New Haven, where he settled with his family in 2014 when his father, Victor Padilla-Taylor ’ 15 M.A.M., began graduate work at the Yale School of Management (SOM).

The tuition-free program helps New Haven schoolchildren achieve school success, physical fitness, and athletic excellence through various academic and athletic opportunities, including playing squash competitively. Based at Payne Whitney Gymnasium, Squash Haven serves about 100 youngsters annually, with most starting in fifth or sixth grade and continuing through high school. Its staff members also help ready the older students for college by taking them on college tours, coaching them before the SATs and other tests, advising on college essays, and more.

Padilla is one of only small number of Squash Haven participants to join the program while in high school.

“It is pretty atypical for us to have someone come in that late in the game, as a high school junior,” says Julie Greenwood, the executive director of Squash Haven, noting that having continuous involvement with youngsters throughout much of their school careers is an important component of the program. “But we had some room in his age group and Victor was uniquely impressive. I saw that he had educational aspirations and intellectual curiosity, combined with high-achieving academic success at his school in Guatemala, so I decided ‘why not?’”

Once in the program, Padilla discovered that 10- and 11-year-olds could teach him a thing or two.

“I had been an accomplished basketball player in Guatemala, playing internationally as part of the junior national team,” he says. “I knew nothing about squash, and so was paired for practice with the other ‘newbies’ — the fifth- and sixth-graders. When I found that they were kicking my butt every single day, I decided I had to embrace that moment and have fun with the kids, learning and practicing alongside them. If I allowed my pride to dominate me, I wouldn’t become the player I wanted to be. Eventually, I not only got better, but I also had a special connection with some of the younger kids.”

Grasping for his dream: When he came to the United States, Padilla decided to give up his beloved sport of basketball because he felt the time commitment would interfere with his desire to support his three younger sisters as they, too, transitioned to new schools in New Haven. He also needed time to focus on his own schoolwork at Wilbur Cross High School, where he took mostly Advanced Placement courses and adjusted to classes and doing homework in the English language.

Squash Haven appealed to him because it gave him an opportunity to learn a new sport while also having academic support and assistance with the college application process.

“Ever since I was little, I have researched coming to university in the United States and studying with diverse and creative people,” says Padilla. “That was my dream, and researching that was a main pastime.  … When I discovered Squash Haven online, it seemed perfect for me. My parents and I didn’t know anything about the college process in America, so I liked that Squash Haven supported kids through that.”

As a participant in Squash Haven, Padilla headed on most weekdays after school to the Payne Whitney Gym, where he spent time in sessions focused on academic enrichment (particularly reading, critical thinking and writing skills), homework, and developing his skills at squash. The program is run by a staff of seven, and the men’s and women’s squash teams help coach the youngsters as volunteers on court. A group of non-squash-playing students help as tutors to the Squash Haven youngsters.

“Most of the kids in Squash Haven will be first-generation college students,” says Padilla. “Christi [Boscarino Elligers, the academic director for Squash Haven] read my college essay and gave me great advice.”

A ripple effect: Greenwood says Squash Haven is enormously proud of Padilla’s accomplishment, emphasizing that she and fellow staff members celebrate every Squash Haven participant who is accepted into college.

“By next year, we’ll have about 25 Squash Haven kids who will have graduated from high school and pursued post-graduate education,” she says. “For us, our work is about accompanying our students on their own individual journeys, whatever they may be, rather than about a specific destination. But Victor’s acceptance to Yale is great for us because it will have a sort of ripple effect: A lot of our kids dream of attending Yale, which is, for them, the most visible symbol of educational success. Victor’s acceptance fills the gap between the dream and its achievement.”

In addition to Squash Haven, Padilla participated in Yale Hemispheres, an international relations program for New Haven high school students taught by Yale undergraduates, and took part in the Health Professionals Recruitment and Exposure Program at Yale, a science enrichment program aimed at recruiting African-American, Native American, and Latino high school students into careers in the sciences and health professions. He was also a member of the board of New Haven’s City-wide Youth Coalition, which helps find common ground and build community among nonprofits in the city serving youth. As the winner of a Shafer Family Scholarship, he took two courses (“Global Health” and “Calculus”) at Yale last summer, when he also participated in the Yale Young Global Scholars Program, which exposes select high school students to global issues, international affairs, American government, and policy leadership.

A foot in the door: Padilla says because of his experiences on campus, Yale was his first choice for college.

Being at Yale and in New Haven, he says, has given him a sense of security that was lacking back home in Guatemala, which has one of the highest crime rates in the world. He wrote his admissions essay about that very topic.

“Yale represents change — an opportunity for me and my family to leave a situation with ever-present insecurity,” he says. “In Guatemala, I was always really scared of any potential danger to my family. Every time my father went off to work, I’d worry about whether he’d make it back safely. Here I could feel that my sisters are safe and that my dad would come home every day.”

A desire to take home what he learns: Padilla is looking forward to living on campus, and joining some of the organizations he participated in as a high school student, including Squash Haven and Hemispheres. He also would like to take part in the Yale International Relations Association and continue to serve the New Haven community in some capacity.

“My dream is to one day go back to Guatemala and make a difference, and I feel that working with New Haven youth is one way I can prepare for that,” he says.

A time of unrest and change: Padilla says he has no qualms about coming to Yale during a time of deep examination and some change for the institution.

“I know the Admissions Office was concerned that some minority kids wouldn’t matriculate because of the campus protests that took place last year,” he says. “But I was impressed that students are being heard. It shows how at Yale — even though there is a difference of opinion — diversity is not a marketing tool. There is this greater idea that everybody belongs here. I’m excited to join a campus community where I can be a part of the ongoing conversation.”

High praise: Padilla’s teachers at Squash Haven are confident their first-ever Yale student will fare well in college.

“Within two short years since he arrived in New Haven from Guatemala, Victor has mastered English, has received impeccable grades from high school and Squash Haven, and has brought perspective and leadership to multiple community organizations,” says Margaret Fleming, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at Squash Haven last year who recently joined the permanent staff of the program. “His unparalleled competency will ensure a very successful career at Yale and beyond.”

Earning his spot: His former teachers at Squash Haven will also keep track of his progress, as the program has recently enlarged its focus to provide support for its graduates into their college years, says Greenwood. Squash Haven has hired a director of college access and persistence to lead that effort.

“While we do prepare our kids for what they might expect in college, we also want to be a support for them should they encounter any stumbling blocks,” says Greenwood.

Padilla is as humble in his expectations for his time at Yale as he was playing squash with 10-year-olds.   

“Everyone accepted into Yale College is in this place, in part, because of the support of others,” he says. “Squash Haven has been like my family, and I’m grateful to the staff for some of the tools they gave me that will enable me to call Yale my home next fall. I hope to realize the potential Yale saw in me.”  

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