When Dan-el Padilla Peralta stood before his fellow Princeton graduates today and delivered the salutatory address, in Latin no less, it was a remarkable feat in itself.
But the story of how he made it to the Ivy League school rivals the Roman classics he fell in love with as a young boy.
Padilla came to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a 4-year-old on a short-term visa, as his mother sought urgent medical care. They remained, and his childhood was spent skipping from one shelter to another in New York.
"It was a kind of personal hell we were all going through," Padilla said. "Because of the rampant drug use, many people's lives were utterly broken."
Reading His Way to Princeton
While those around Padilla struggled in his New York neighborhood, Padilla inadvertently found a future for himself at age 9 when he started reading a book on ancient Greek and Roman culture.
He was hooked, and kept reading.
"It allowed me to sort of forge with my imagination a world that I was not a part of," Padilla said.
His reading and interest in learning helped him win a scholarship to a prestigious prep school, and he hid his school tie while walking from his family's tiny Harlem apartment to the subway.
Next, he earned a scholarship to Princeton, despite his lack of citizenship.
"To me, the only amazing thing about him was his ability," said Dennis Feeney, professor in Princeton's classics departmentt. "I had no idea he was undocumented."
That is, until now. Padilla has revealed his illegal status because he's been invited to study at Oxford University in England.
If he leaves the United States, immigration law says he can't come back for at least a decade.
"That would put me in the position of missing out on some very beautiful things. I would like to see my brother graduate from high school," Padilla said.
Padilla's attorney is asking for a waiver, but there are tens of thousands of undocumented students in the United States, and some argue such a waiver would set a precedent:
"We can't make exception for people who break the law simply because they happen to be geniuses," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform
Potential Save From a Wedding?
Padilla has made little of his story on Princeton's New Jersey campus, rarely sharing details about his predicament with his fellow scholars.
But despite his secrecy, they have learned of it. Some have even come forward offering to marry him.
"The first time one of my closest friends brought it up, I was nearly reduced to tears," Padilla said.
At today's graduation ceremony there were tears again, with the unanswered question about Oxford. For now, Padilla has left that decision in the hands of others.
"I have tried … to show that my merits matter far more than a simple characterization of me or any others as illegal immigrants," Padilla said. "And the rest, as the Greeks would say, I have to leave up to the immortal gods."