NAMPA — Elbie Seibert, 17, is the first student from Columbia High School to be accepted to an Ivy League School. Earlier this school year, he almost put that dream aside.
The day after Thanksgiving, Seibert’s father was diagnosed with stage 4 bladder cancer, around the same time Seibert was working on about 30 college applications. Seibert, the class valedictorian with his sights set on Brown University and law school, questioned whether he should even apply to some of his top picks because they were so far from family.
His father assured him he shouldn’t limit his future because of what was happening at home.
Those words of encouragement made all the difference for Seibert, especially as his father’s health declined.
“Now,” Seibert told the Idaho Press Tuesday, “as he goes through a stage in his life where he can’t speak, he doesn’t really understand what’s going on, he doesn’t really know who we are anymore, I just have to keep remembering that conversation we had.”
As the May 24 graduation grows closer, it’s an emotional time for Seibert and his family. He was supposed to give the valedictorian speech during the ceremony but pulled out after a hospice caregiver estimated his father had only a week to live.
Seibert’s father died early Wednesday evening.
Over the past six months, Seibert has had to face the likelihood of losing his father. He handled things most high school students never have to think about, like changing his father’s catheter or helping him up after a fall in the middle of the night.
Seibert was somewhat prepared for the additional caretaking responsibilities, though.
Growing up, he’s always had to take on a leading role in his family to take care of his mother, who has cerebral palsy. Seibert’s father, before he was diagnosed, worked as a janitor, with his shifts mostly at night. While his mother was a stay-at-home provider for most of the day, it’s been up to Seibert to take care of her after he gets home from school.
“For me, taking care of my parents has always been my job,” he said.
Caring for his family is the life Seibert has known for most of his life, but he doesn’t see his circumstances as a hindrance. In fact, he said his experiences have motivated him to overcome obstacles, and as a result, he’ll be heading to Brown University this fall.
Seibert’s family lives in a manufactured home on the north side of Nampa between two trailer parks. Living in poverty, Seibert said his family handled their financial situation in a way that didn’t make it seem like a hardship, coming up with creative solutions and compromises to their problems.
Still, relying on food stamps and going summers without air conditioning was not a life Seibert wanted for himself after high school.
“I just knew I couldn’t do this for the rest of my life,” he said.
Throughout high school, Seibert would spend much of the evening studying, he said, finding ways to get homework done while caring for his mom. He has always loved to read, and he enjoyed doing homework and learning new things.
Seibert saw academics as a way out of his situation, and he homed in on that drive by getting more involved at school. He became a captain for Columbia’s speech and debate team, was accepted into the National Honor Society and was the team manager and statistician for the girls’ volleyball team.
Career counselor Cassie Talbott said Seibert was ranked among the top 50 speech and debate students in the country.
Located in a part of Nampa where many families struggle with poverty, Seibert said there is a dichotomy of wealth among the students at Columbia. Rather than see his financial situation as a setback, he looked at it as an opportunity to beat the odds.
“There definitely is a difference that I have noticed,” Seibert said. “But it’s not impossible to overcome.”
Seibert credits Talbott and other Columbia faculty for helping him excel. He said Talbott was always kind and encouraging of his goals, reassuring him that he would find success in whatever he put his mind to. All of the school’s counselors do their best to meet the needs of each individual student, and Seibert said he’s not sure that he would be attending Brown this fall if it weren’t for their guidance.
Talbott said much of the help Seibert received was because of his own initiative. She became the career counselor at Columbia three years ago, overseeing about 1,300 students. Talbott said Seibert has consistently sought out the school’s career center for advice, is open about his circumstances and isn’t afraid to ask for help.
“He knew where he was going at a young age,” Talbott said.
Seibert was accepted to several schools, including Georgetown and the University of Virginia, and was wait-listed at Harvard University, when he got accepted to Brown University. It was March, and the emotional toll of his father’s health, which had started to plummet, was just hitting him when he received the letter. Brown had emerged as his ideal university after going on several college tours, so getting accepted was emotional for Seibert and his father, who was still alert enough at the time to understand.
“He cried, I cried,” Seibert said.
Seibert wasn’t just accepted to Brown — he received a full-ride scholarship. Talbott said he earned over $250,000 through several scholarships, and he may not have to use all of them because Brown officials have said they will pay for everything, including his clothing and flights home. This is unheard of for a Columbia student, she said.
Seibert said he plans to double major in environmental studies and public policy. He hopes to attend law school later on, and Talbott said he is looking at Harvard. She has no doubt he’ll be accepted.
“I’ve never felt so strongly saying that about any other student,” Talbott said.
Seibert said he wants to go into civic activism and advocacy rather than politics. He develops a passion for things he is able to experience firsthand, like improving America’s health care system for impoverished families. His father’s cancer, for example, deteriorated his health so quickly because earlier on, he said his father chose not to seek a doctor’s appointment, opting to instead spend what time and money he had on providing for his family. That is a choice Seibert said no person should ever have to make.
“He paid for that with his life,” Seibert said.
Life for Seibert has not slowed down since he got his acceptance letter from Brown. He said he has spent a lot of his time reading, and will likely use most of his summer preparing for college. When he leaves for Rhode Island, it will be up to his 13-year-old sister to take on caring for their mother, which he said will be difficult, but he is confident she can handle it.
Any free time Seibert has is usually spent with family.
“Self-care can come later,” he said on Tuesday. “My dad doesn’t have later.”
Though Seibert won’t be giving an address at graduation, he still wants to encourage his classmates to pursue their goals, even if they seem unattainable. Talbott said that is a part of Seibert’s character. Even during his own counseling sessions, he would ask how he could help upcoming students.
“No matter what you go through in life,” Seibert said, “you have the opportunity to be successful.”