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Gustavo Perez: Birmingham School Student and Winner of the Princeton University Prize

By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

When Gustavo Garcia Perez first joined the band at Birmingham’s George Washington Carver High School in his freshman year, it was tough.

“It took me a really long time to learn how to march and how to march with my instrument, and then I got used to it,” Perez told Birmingham City Schools (BCS) in September 2022.

Perez got so “used to it,” in fact, that he was moved up to drum major in 2021, becoming the first Hispanic drum major in the school’s history.

Once again, the change was difficult for Perez, but he found inspiration in people like Marvin Garcia Meda, the first head drum major at Jackson State University (JSU) in Mississippi. “I look up, a lot, to him,” Perez said.

For his work and leadership in the Carver band, as well as broadly throughout the school and in his community, Perez, who graduates in June and plans to attend Miles College, was recently awarded the Princeton University Prize in Race Relations in Alabama for 2023.

In recognition of this award, Gustavo will receive a $1,000 award and an invitation to attend the Symposium on Race at Princeton in New Jersey where he will have the opportunity to meet Princeton Prize winners from across the United States.

Outside of the band, Perez raised $65,000 for blood cancer research during the 2021 Lymphoma and Leukemia Society Student of the Year Program. Perez also helped launch Carver’s recycling program that year through his work as a leader on the school’s Altec Innovation Challenge Team and YouthServe School Changemakers Council, which won $10,000.

Perez is also president of Carver’s National Honor Society, a leader on the Rams’ soccer team and has been a member of Heritage Panel, the school’s social justice club since his freshman year.

While Perez initially planned on going to either JSU or Tennessee State University, he has recently changed his mind and decided to attend Miles College in Fairfield. Staying closer to home seemed like a good option, Perez said.

“I think Miles is a great choice for me because it’s here in Birmingham, and I want to stay close to home and close to my friends, and I also want to come back to Carver and help out the band,” Perez told BCS in March.

Perez intends to study computer information sciences at Miles and will start with the school’s Purple Marching Machine playing clarinet, a position he hopes won’t last too long.

“Hopefully, I become drum major over there and become the first Hispanic drum major at Miles too,” Perez said.

Perez’s father died when the high school senior was young, which left him and his mother, an immigrant of Mexico, alone for much of his youth. Perez’s accomplishments weren’t easy to reach, he said.

“It’s been really hard because, kids like me, they don’t really get a lot of opportunities, so this was very big to me because I know this is going to be a big example to all the other Hispanic kids,” Perez said.

Despite the troubles they may face, Perez said, Hispanic youth can achieve what they desire.

“Anything is possible. We can do anything, and we can accomplish our goals despite all the obstacles and all the challenges,” said Perez in September 2022.

Gustavo is also an alumnus of the Youth Leadership Forum and the Anytown Alabama Leadership Summit. A scholar in Carver’s Academy of Engineering, he will graduate with the Seal of Biliteracy in English and Spanish.