It's personal for Daniel Lage.
At 21 he's already catapulted his way from Gulliver Preparatory School to one of the world's most prestigious universities. And now he's on his way, all expenses paid, to the world's most ballyhooed graduate school.
Lage, who will graduate from Harvard in May with a degree in history and science, was recently awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to England's University of Oxford. He is on a very short list of Cuban Americans to receive such an honor, though it's hard to know exactly how many, since records of that nature are hard to come by.
This, though, is certain: His choice of study across the pond is comparative social policy, or, the study of different healthcare systems. And the driver of his ambition is his grandfather Eugene Lage, a small business owner in Cuba who escaped Castro in 1970. He became a trucker in the United States.
The elder Lage is now forced to live at his family's Coral Gables home while he ages away with dementia.
``I'm very close to my grandparents,'' the younger Lage said from aboard a bus to New York City, on his way to interview at Columbia University's medical school. The plan is to gain acceptance, then attend the New York City school after spending two years abroad.
``I've been raised with them [grandparents] living in my home, which is a huge blessing,'' said Lage. Without them, ``I wouldn't have a reason to study at Oxford.''
Lage says he's seen it firsthand, a healthcare system in one of the world's most prosperous countries, where elderly support for certain illnesses like dementia is less than extraordinary.
``There's no support for my grandmother. We're very much left to deal with this on our own. That's what really shocked me, we're one of the lucky ones,'' said Lage, whose parents are both professionals. ``Imagine not speaking English, having much less and trying to get through this.''
Lage's folks left Cuba in 1970 aboard the Freedom Flights, eventually finding a home in Hialeah. His mom is now a practicing pediatrician and his dad studied architecture. They moved to Coral Gables where Lage enrolled at Gulliver Preparatory School.
He went on to become valedictorian, and earned the prestigious Silver Knight award for general scholarship in his senior year. Marguerite Graham, who headed up the sciences department remembers Lage well, she wrote a letter of recommendation for him during his courting of Oxford. Lage also headed up a club Graham formed that raised money for those suffering with cancer and diabetes.
``The thing that stood out for me was that he was always a gentleman, and extremely kind to everyone,'' said Graham. ``He felt like he could make a difference. It's rare that you see that.''
By 2007, Lage was off to Harvard, his direction set by watching the decline of his beloved grandfather's health.
Oddly, and coincidentally, former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz would take up a teaching position at the Cambridge school after leaving office last year, and meet Lage. Diaz, like Lage, is the child of Cuban parents who created a life for themselves in Miami.
Their relationship extended beyond the classroom, where Diaz taught a course on rebuilding America's cities. During President Barack Obama's State of the Union address earlier this year, Lage and a group of friends who belonged to an on-campus Hispanic group, visited Diaz's apartment for pizza and sodas. Another night, Diaz had the group over and ordered food from the only Cuban restaurant in town.
Lage is the president of Harvard's Cuban American Undergraduate Association. He jokes being Cuban in Miami is like, ``whatever. But in Boston, it's something unique.''
Diaz said one of the things that surprised him about the students at Harvard, was their drive to make the world a better place, their willingness to help.
``Danny has a sense of commitment to some sort of public service,'' said Diaz. ``They're all just good old humble, hard working kids. It's the same story, and they've made it. I'm just so proud.''
On his way this week to watch the Christmas tree lighting at New York City's Rockefeller Center, Lage said it's his heritage, and his family, that continue to drive him in his studies.
Still, the Rhodes award took him by surprise.
``I love to learn, but I never thought I'd get accepted,'' he said. ``There are a lot of smart people out there.''