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Headed to Harvard: Hettinger senior accepted into Ivy League university

Michael Shirek

HETTINGER — When Hettinger High School senior Michael Shirek was still in elementary school, it became a standing joke that he was destined to attend Harvard. This spring, the joke became a reality when he received his letter of acceptance.

The jokes may have started after his dad bought him a Harvard T-shirt in fifth grade.

“It was always a joke. Michael’s going to Harvard, he’s the smart one in class,” Shirek said. “Beginning high school, I started taking the idea more seriously. The summer before my junior year, I went to the East Coast to tour the campus and that’s when I fell in love with the school.”

Shirek is the son of Todd and Cathy Shirek (who is known professionally as Dr. Catherine Houle).

He is one of the co-valedictorians who will be speaking during Hettinger High School’s commencement ceremonies next Sunday.

Shirek took the most advanced classes Hettinger offered, and volunteered in both his school and the community. As a member of Hettinger’s Future Business Leaders of America chapter, the students organized fundraisers for the March of Dimes. He participated in band and choir, and recently attended the Class B state music festival. He honed his leadership skills by becoming involved in Student Council, speech and drama, and serving as senior class president.

“Basically, I was in everything that wasn’t a sport,” he said. “I guess I did lifeguarding to try to balance it out.”

The application process can be daunting for any college, but especially difficult for Harvard.

About 40,000 people applied to Harvard this year, and roughly 5.4 percent of those applications were accepted. It comes down to letters of recommendation, class ranking, ACT scores, extracurricular activities and essays, he said.

“My English teacher, Geri Dunn, worked a lot with me on my grammar skills, and Bonnie Smith (a retired teacher) was so helpful in every step of the way,” Shirek said.

Of course, his parents played a key role.

“My dad is the one who planted that seed — he was a big part of it,” he said. “My mom has been super, super supportive. If I have an idea, they never question it, but how to make it happen.”

“He’s always been driven that way,” said Todd Shirek. “There was a time in first grade that he told his mom, ‘If the kids would be quiet, we could get some work done.’ Tthat is one of his mom’s favorite stories. Some thought he was different, but he was never afraid to be his own person and that drove him to do his own thing.

“We went to his last concert and there’s graduation. We’re seeing all of this coming to an end, but it’s just the beginning for him. He’s ready to fly.”

Michael Shirek suspects he was accepted to Harvard because of a balance of grades, references and his resume.

“One of my really good friends also applied, and he’s 10 times the person I am,” he said. “The only real difference was that he was one point lower on the ACT test and (he) is on the waitlist. I just think it’s strictly balance, making everything strong.”

Shirek plans to pursue a degree in the biology sciences, with the goal of enrolling in medical school.

To help mitigate the cost of a Harvard education, he is applying for scholarships, both local and state. He’ll be taking a job cleaning Harvard dormitory rooms this fall and will be lifeguarding most of summer at Hettinger.

The letters of congratulations continue to pour in.

“I’ve had a lot of community support and that feels amazing,” he said. “It still feels like a dream that still doesn’t feel quite real.”