Miguel Benitez hails from Newburgh, N.Y., ranked No. 14 on the most dangerous cities in the U.S. according to Neighborhood Scout’s 2016 list. The city was once headlined as the murder capital of New York.
Benitez will soon escape the high-crime area for Blue Ridge School in Saint George after receiving a scholarship from Sonabank to attend the private all-male boarding school. Benitez first visited the school on a trip in seventh grade. Mark Connell, principal of San Miguel Academy from where Benitez recently graduated, said Benitez had his eyes set on Blue Ridge since that visit.
“We’re in Newburgh which is a really tough town. Minority boys typically don’t graduate from high school, so we try to put them on a sound academic path,” Connell said. “He liked it from the moment he set eyes on it. He’s never changed his mind. It was the first school that he visited, and it turns out he never looked back.”
Knowing it was the school he wanted, Connell said it became a matter of making it affordable.
“Blue Ridge gave Miguel a huge scholarship, but there was still what we call a tuition gap that we needed to fill. That’s where Miguel’s parents and Sonabank stepped up and said, ‘We can make this happen,’” he said.
Benitez is the first student from the academy to attend Blue Ridge School, as well as receive the Sonabank scholarship. Sonabank donated the scholarship in memory of Tom and Susie Baker of Charlottesville. Tom Baker served as Chief Credit Officer of Sonabank.
“My mom gave me a letter from Blue Ridge School, and when I opened it, it said I had gotten accepted,” Benitez said. “When I saw the letter I was excited. I didn’t know what to do. I was jumping with excitement. I didn’t know whether to cry or just be happy.”
While he says he’s both excited and nervous, Benitez said he knows Blue Ridge School will provide him with opportunities.
“I applied because it was a good school. It also had a beautiful campus, and it was a chance for me to get away from the violence of Newburgh and get new options in academics and athletics,” he said. “It gives me a little bit of hope for me to improve as a person and improve my character.”
Benitez intends to play lacrosse at Blue Ridge and focus on his favorite subject, science, in hopes of being a doctor one day.
Connell says he has no doubts that Benitez will succeed at his new school.
“[San Miguel Academy] is small, and our guys and our program do better in smaller learning environments. Certainly Blue Ridge School is a small learning environment, so we’re sure that Miguel is going to get all the individual attention he needs to be successful,” Connell said. “I was struck by his tenacity. It always seemed to be on Miguel’s heart that Blue Ridge was the place for him. He’s never wavered on that.”