Incoming Cornell freshman who drowned in gorge was a rising star

Winston Samuel Perez Ventura, the young man who died Saturday in Ithaca’s Fall Creek gorge, sparked a sensation when he was admitted to Cornell last fall. He had just completed Cornell’s Prefreshman Summer Program.

Winston “Sammy” Perez Ventura working in AAP’s studio during this summer’s prefreshman program. Photo by William Staffeld courtesy of Cornell University.

Born in the Dominican Republic, Winston moved to the United States at the age of nine to join his mother in New York City, five years after she emigrated to get established and create a home for her son, according to Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art & Planning.

In 2013, he was a member of the first class at Democracy Prep Harlem High School, and when he learned in December he’d been accepted to Cornell via its early decision program, he was the first student from Democracy Prep to be admitted to college. His family’s discovery he’d been admitted to Cornell was captured on video and went viral on social media before the story was picked up by ABC News.

“Winston was known throughout the architecture studio and PSP for his genuine kindness, outgoing personality, enthusiasm for architecture, and smile that lit up the room,” said Andrea Kiely, assistant director of admissions and academic services. “He was a gentleman who inspired respect among his peers for his musical talents and work ethic. He was a good friend and an inspiration to a lot of students in PSP because he was so friendly, kind, and talented.”

“Winston was the face of the summer class — always beaming,” adds Luben Dimcheff, Richard Meier Assistant Professor of Architecture and coleader of the Introduction to Architecture Summer program. “He had a hand-written note at his desk that read, ‘All I can be is myself, but better than I was yesterday.’ As his teacher, I would push him daily — I wanted him to be the best . . . only he already was: caring, curious, and courageous. He would spring up to offer his seat at any time, he would ask the most profound questions and in the same breath answer them himself with no fear of judgment, and every time I posed a challenge, Winston would respond ‘Oh yes — I can, and I will!'”

On Saturday afternoon, the 17-year-old had entered the gorge above Ithaca Falls to swim but didn’t resurface, friends told emergency responders. The New York State Police dive team recovered his body nearly five hours later.

The organizer of a GoFundMe campaign that claims to be for the purpose of helping the young man’s family pay for funeral expenses has not responded to multiple requests for more information. We do not recommend donating to that campaign.

“There are some students you just have a feeling about,” says Maureen Carroll, director of admissions for AAP, “that this is one stop on their ultimate path to individual greatness. They are unquantifiably special. Winston was one of them.”

A memorial service will be held at Cornell’s Sage Chapel at 4:30pm on Tuesday, August 8th.

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