Charter school grad, aspiring singer hits academic high notes

Geoff Fox

Mercedes Ferreira-Dias basks in a shower of applause at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. A 2019 Presidential Scholar, Ferreira-Dias, 18, will attend Harvard University and Berklee College of Music.

She impatiently waits for the day she can spread herself thin

For the day when her momma says,

“You can do anything you want to if you sacrifice a bit”

        — “I.O.U.” by Mercedes Ferreira-Dias

Notes bounced from an upright bass as Mercedes Ferreira-Dias strode to center stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

The spotlights were trained on her before a full house at a performance for the National YoungArts Foundation, but if the 18-year-old was nervous, it didn’t show.

Nerves aren’t a struggle for Mercedes, 18, who is so academically gifted that she will enroll at both Harvard University and Berklee College of Music in August. A 2019 Presidential Scholar, she was valedictorian of her graduating class at Mater Academy Lakes High School, a charter school in Miami.

She commanded the Kennedy Center stage with the grace of a show business veteran. Smiling and grooving, she soon had the crowd clapping along as she belted out a jazzy version of “No Roots” by progressive pop artist Alice Merton:

I like digging holes and

Hiding things inside them

When I grow old I hope

I won’t forget to find them

‘Cause I got memories

They travel like gypsies in the night

On the song’s final note, Mercedes was showered with applause.

You can view Mercedes’ performance here.

“My dream career is to be a working musician and performer,” she said. “If that doesn’t happen with my own music, I’d like to write for others or manage other artists. I’ve been writing songs since I was about 8. I started with just superficial stuff, but they’ve gotten more complex as I’ve grown.”

Mercedes had a taste of the limelight last year when she was a contestant on NBC’s popular show, “The Voice,” where country star Blake Shelton told her that her voice was “personal” and “unique.” Pop singer Kelly Clarkson said Mercedes had “an angelic kind of style.”

This year, she also performed during “A Salute to the 2019 U.S. Presidential Scholars” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

But academics are as important to Mercedes and her family as the fame and fortune that may come with a big-time recording contract.

The youngest daughter of Venezuelan immigrants Fernando and Maria Ferreira-Dias, she graduated in May from Mater Academy with a stunning 5.47 GPA.

At Harvard, Mercedes plans to major in either history or literature and minor in psychology. She will study songwriting at Berklee, where alumni include music stars such as Branford Marsalis, Melissa Ethridge, John Mayer and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan.

Mercedes is as thrilled about her pending move, and the opportunities it will bring, as her parents are anxious about their daughter living on her own in Boston; her older sister Catalina, 19, also attends an Ivy League institution: Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

“Oh my God, I’m going to cry,” said her mother, Maria. “Of course, we’re very proud of her. She’s a very unique person, but she’s more than just a girl going to Harvard and Berklee at the same time. There’s no one else like her. She’s more mature (than most teenagers) and she’s a deep thinker. She can see things from different points of view.”

Mercedes attended her neighborhood school through fifth grade, but when it came time to enter middle school, her parents opted for Mater Academy, where the class sizes were much smaller. A B-rated school, Mater Academy is managed by Mater Academy, Inc., a charter school operator based in Miami; operations are overseen in part by Academica, a charter school service and support organization.

Mercedes’ parents were impressed by Mater Academy’s welcoming, nurturing environment.

“She’s one of the most outstanding students I’ve had in my entire career,” said Ayleen Charles, a history teacher who taught Mercedes in middle and high school. “She’s dedicated to academics. She has great character, she’s very kind, compassionate. Anything positive, that’s what she is.”

At Mater Academy, Mercedes also sang in the choir and held leadership positions in several clubs, establishing the school’s first Women’s Empowerment Club and Gay-Straight Alliance.

Outside school, she has voluntarily performed at countless local government functions and benefit concerts.

Charles even recruited her to sing in her band.

“When I heard her sing in class, I encouraged her to pursue it,” Charles said. “I said to myself, ‘I just want to sing with her.’ She’s outstanding.”

While Mercedes and Catalina, a visual artist, are intensely interested in the arts, Mercedes said her parents are not. Maria was mostly a stay-at-home mom, while Fernando is a banker at BB&T. Maria and Fernando met in Boston after each left Venezuela in their 20s.

Most of Mercedes’ family still lives in Venezuela, a once-prosperous oil-producing country that has descended into political unrest and crime-riddled chaos after the collapse of its economy.

“Although some (of my family) are trying to flee, most of them can’t see themselves living anywhere except the country they spent most of their lives in despite all the turmoil,” Mercedes said.

In Washington last month, she met a man who has often had a lot to say about her family’s homeland: President Donald Trump, who recently said he was exploring the possibility of granting temporary asylum to thousands of Venezuelans who have fled to the United States.

“It was surreal when you see someone you just associate with articles and videos,” she said. “I’m still wrapping my head around the feelings I have. He’s a character.”

In a few weeks, Mercedes will head to Boston to start the next chapter of her life. She spoke of the pending challenge with great excitement.

Like the words to her own song, “I.O.U.,” she can’t wait to spread herself thin.

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