About five years ago, César Cisneros and his mother and sister fled their native El Salvador to the United States.

“We were forced to come to this country,” he said, noting the main reason was the threats that they faced from gangs there. “I left all my friends behind,” he added, noting his older sister Krissia was then studying at the University of El Salvador, and “she had to leave everything behind.”

Cisneros learned English as an eighth grader in his new country, and making the best of his educational opportunities became a key goal for him. As he became acclimated to his life in the United States, he was inspired by the tenacity of his mother, Delmy Cisneros. “For a time, she had three work shifts (as a custodian) while I was in school,” he said.

Four years ago, he enrolled as a freshman at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Maryland. The coed Catholic high school, cosponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington and the Salesians of Don Bosco, offers an innovative Corporate Work Study Program – the only one of its kind in the Washington area.

At Cristo Rey, students from low-income families are able to work one day a week at leading businesses and institutions to gain professional experience and help pay the cost for their Catholic, college preparatory education. The school has about 400 students, serving primarily students from Hispanic and African American families, and since it opened in 2007, all of its graduates have been accepted into colleges.

“I’m a very academically driven person. Don Bosco Cristo Rey has nurtured that in all of us,” said Cisneros, who added, “I’ve always been persistent. I had this goal to get straight A’s (through high school), and I did.”

Cisneros said he’s also been motivated by striving to accomplish things that people might think can’t be done. And Cristo Rey, he said, “shaped me into a person who’s willing to thrive, no matter what obstacles he faces.”

This spring, Cisneros – now an 18-year-old resident of Berwyn Heights, Maryland – achieved a distinction that marks a milestone for Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, as he was accepted into Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and became the first Cristo Rey student to be accepted into an Ivy League school.

“It is an honor,” he said, adding that he hopes “it helps encourage other students at the school.”

At Cornell, Cisneros plans to major in government and minor in German or Japanese and communications. He served as student government president at Cristo Rey this year and was vice president last year, after serving as a class representative during his freshman and sophomore years.

The things he learned about leadership while serving in student government there, he said, included understanding “it’s impossible to make everybody happy at the same time. I’ve learned to balance out what best suits the school.”

His work study experiences at Don Bosco Cristo Rey included working at a law firm downtown, where Cisneros said he learned about teamwork and collaboration, and working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, where the coding and programing that he learned later helped him excel in his AP computer science class.

In the summer between his sophomore and junior years at Cristo Rey, Cisneros participated in the Youth for Understanding program, studying abroad in Japan. His interest in other cultures was fostered during his youth in El Salvador, where religious missionaries were teaching children how to play musical instruments, and he learned to play the harp, which he has performed at his school. “I became fond of Irish and Scottish folk music,” he said.

Cisneros, who is Catholic, said he appreciated the faith of the school community. “We’re able to empathize (with) and help each other,” he said, adding that the school nurtures an environment of solidarity. He noted how this February, about a dozen Cristo Rey students went to Arizona in the El Otro Lado (Spanish for “The Other Side”) program, to meet youth and families who were immigrants from Mexico and Central American countries.

“It was an experience of sympathy,” he said, noting how politicians and the media sometimes wrongly portray immigrants “as evil people.”

His firsthand understanding of the immigrant experience helped Cisneros decide to major in government studies at Cornell. “It stems from my country and what I saw there,” he said, noting the poverty crisis there and how the gang problem “is an everyday thing,” and his belief that some U.S. policies have “contributed to some of those problems.”

Cisneros spoke proudly of the persistence of his older sister, who will be enrolling in college after her earlier studies had been interrupted when the family fled El Salvador. As for his own dreams for the future, he hopes to go to law school one day and become and immigration attorney, and help immigrants know what their rights are in their new home.

“I carry that with me,” said Cisneros, who believes “it’s my job as a fellow immigrant to give back to my community.”