Ruben Mercado embodies the classic immigrant story. When he was a kid, his family bounced from one tiny apartment to the next, struggling but always happy just to be in the United States. Fast-forward to his senior year at Northeast High School in Oakland Park, and Ruben is a campus icon. Students are signing each other’s yearbooks, and Ruben is feeling gratified by the notes of appreciation he’s getting from his peers.
"Sometimes you're just trying to help somebody else, but you don't really think that you're going to have such a profound impact. When you do, when they come back to you, it's like, 'Wow, I did something,'" said Ruben.
Ruben’s done more than something, he’s done a ton of things at Northeast.
"He's achieved so much and just seeing him achieve and accomplish so many great things has pushed and motivated me," said Shannon Stever, a classmate.
Ruben is the senior class salutatorian, which means he has the second-highest GPA. He leads four different service clubs while still finding time to tutor his classmates, inspiring them by example.
"He has this confidence about him that, it's not like arrogance at all, it's a confidence that encourages other people to be just as strong as he is," said Anthony Collins, a classmate.
Ruben doesn’t like to talk much about his past. But last week at the senior awards event, Ruben gave a keynote speech in which he told his family’s story, how they left their native country fearing for their lives, and left everything behind to make it to the United States.
“There was not a single dry eye in the room,” said Ruben’s best friend, Kelvin Kirkland.
His humble beginnings in this country still inspire Ruben every day.
"All the hard work that you do, staying up in the middle of the night, literally tears, working for 'A's', I always said anything below an 'A' is not acceptable, and it was because I knew that my path was harder," Ruben explained.
Ruben won a full scholarship to UCF through TheDream.US foundation, which supports immigrant kids. His buddy, Kelvin, is going to FIU to play football.
"In times when I needed a friend, he was always there, classmate, he's always there ot help me with my work, to be honest, what he's given me is more valuable than what I can put into words," Kelvin said.
Ruben leaves a legacy of achievement and superlatives at Northeast.
"Extraordinary, extra, extra, extra ordinary," said his college advisor, Shedly Casseus-Parnther, describing her favorite student. “If he speaks and you don't feel it, it's because you didn't hear him."
So what’s next for this extraordinary young man? He wants to become a physician, with a dream of working with Doctors Without Borders somewhere in the Third World.
"You help everybody and you try to save as many lives as you can, that's my main ultimate goal," Ruben said.
Ruben has a habit of reaching his goals. Hard work and perseverance gets him there.
“I’ve come a long way, and I’m really grateful for that,” Ruben said.