Written by Jake Lloyd
Edwin Ordoñez's story, by now, is known by many. A front page Washington Post article April 11 documented Edwin’s incredible journey.
From an El Salvadorian village where he lived with his grandparents and worked on a farm. To Guatemala, then Mexico, then walking across a desert and swimming across the Rio Grande River with his dad to enter the United States -- at age 9.
From not knowing a lick of English upon entering Washington, DC’s H.D. Cooke Elementary School as a fourth-grader. To graduating valedictorian of his high school, Bell Multicultural, after taking 12 AP classes and six college courses.
To, finally, Princeton University, to which Edwin, a first-generation college student, is receiving basically a full scholarship.
On a mid-July day, Edwin is already at Princeton, taking two courses that take up six hours each day as part of freshman orientation.
“At this point, I’m really excited about all the opportunities that this school has to offer,” Edwin says by phone. “I feel like I will accomplish a lot and I will grow not just as a student but as a leader, and become someone who can really contribute to my community and to the world as a whole.”
That Edwin will lead, that Edwin will achieve -- he can just let his work speak for itself. But how did Edwin become someone all his peers look up to and admire? And how did soccer, the game he grew up loving in El Salvador, fit in?
Fourth grade for Edwin at H.D. Cooke was about getting his bearings in a new land. He knew, however, that he wanted to play on the soccer team. He saw the aqua jerseys with the school name on the back his peers wore every Thursday for game day. He made that a reality in fifth grade, making many friends in DC SCORES. The poetry aspect assisted him as he continued to learn the English language.
“I feel like I received a lot of help from them,” Edwin says of his two poetry coaches at the time.
Edwin’s next stop was Lincoln Middle School in Columbia Heights. Because of great interest, the boys soccer team was split into a sixth and seventh grade team and an eighth grade squad, which was coached by Popsie Lewis. Edwin enjoyed his first year and a half at Lincoln, but it wasn’t until Popsie took over the seventh graders during the spring of Edwin’s second year that he blossomed.
|Edwin with his MVP plaque after one of Lincoln's|
Capital Cup middle school championships.
“At that point, I felt like I was more than a player when I was on the field,” Edwin says now. “I was like another coach.”
Whenever his teammates got out of line or “a little bit carried away,” Edwin made sure to speak up and restore order. “That was when I really realized what it meant to be a captain,” he says.
Popsie, now a DC SCORES coach of nine years and the recent recipient of D.C. United’s MLS Community MVP, preaches respect more than any other value with his kids at Thomson Elementary and Lincoln, and with his alumni team. He didn’t need to say a word to Edwin.
“That kid had it down pat from Day 1,” Popsie says.
Popsie describes Edwin as a “kid that naturally led,” but as Edwin tells it, leadership only came easily on the soccer field. It took him growing in that role and learning from his coach to become comfortable leading in other capacities in and around school.
“I was always really uncomfortable with taking leadership positions outside of the field,” Edwin says. “But getting that practice on the field really gave me confidence to take on leadership positions outside the field as well, and I feel like that really reflected in the way I started high school and the way I carried myself through high school.”
By the time Edwin reached 11th grade, he had four years of soccer captainship under his belt. Not only had he played at Lincoln, but he was one of the original members of Popsie and Simon Landau’s first DC SCORES alumni team that competed in DC Stoddert leagues year-round. Edwin was the no-brainer captain choice.
|Edwin (center) with coach Popsie (left), coach Simon (right) and teammates at an indoor alumni tournament.|
“Edwin was always the one kid that I could call and say, ‘Hey, man, call the kids, get them together, make it to the game, coach the game,’” Popsie says.
“A kid at 16, 17 years old taking that responsibility to not only do what I ask but more importantly having a group of kids under his supervision and always doing the right thing and always putting them in the right situations -- meaning nobody ever got in trouble, nobody ever wandered off from him -- I think that itself spoke volumes about Edwin.
“Because to have those younger kids kind of look up to him -- not only look up to him but obviously have a lot of respect for him -- that’s the only way that was able to work.”
Edwin didn’t play high school soccer. He wanted to, but he didn’t take the chance. The interest at Bell far exceeds the number of spots available. There's only a varsity team. So he just played on Popsie and Simon’s team. And as his workload at school got bigger and bigger, his time away from all of it meant that much more.
|Edwin (2nd from right) also found time to become a certified volunteer referee for DC SCORES game days.|
“Soccer has always been a way to relax myself,” Edwin says, “a way to forget about the schoolwork for a little bit. During my time at Bell, I felt like that was something I really needed a lot of the time.”
In that 11th grade year, generally considered the hardest of high school, Edwin, in his own words, fully embraced leadership in all aspects of his life. He became the Vice President of the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) club at school, a position that meant representing hundreds of students from all across the District who are interested in business.
Edwin thrived in the position and his stature in Bell’s hallways continued to grow, too, with more and more students looking up to him. If being named valedictorian was a campaign, this was the beginning of Edwin’s political journey.
“It was a bigger position, a bigger responsibility, and I felt like it was because of the way that I felt after all those years of practice on the field,” Edwin says now of his decision to take on the VP role.
Just this past June, he delivered the valedictorian speech to his fellow graduates.
When Edwin thinks back on the impact of DC SCORES, he calls it “literally … a second family for me.”
Edwin was relatively calm when he found out about his acceptance to Princeton -- one of 25 schools, six in the Ivy League, he applied to -- but his coaches weren’t. Simon called Edwin 10 seconds after hearing the news.
“They were really happy,” Edwin says. “They were even more happy and excited than I was.
“Popsie has been more than a coach, more than a friend, and I’m really, really happy with the bond that we’ve created -- not only with him, but also with Simon and with my teammates as well.
“I feel like those are people I always can count on.”
Many of Edwin’s toughest obstacles are behind him. Crossing the entirety of Mexico. Learning a new language. Making friends. Getting the full scholarship despite not being eligible for federal loans or grants because of his immigration status.
And one thing is certain: As Edwin embarks on this next journey, studying computer engineering and hoping to play club soccer, Princeton University has a seasoned freshman leader on campus.
“He had so many things stacked up against him,” Popsie says. “But never once did he lose track of what his ultimate goal was.”