Local girls awarded $25K in scholarships from Girls Inc. National Scholars Program
For many first-generation students, college marks the finish line of an endurance race to academic triumph.
But often that goal is plagued by its own set of hurdles.
First-generation students tend to graduate at lower rates than their peers, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A UCLA report found that while nearly one-third of all incoming freshmen each year are the first in their families to pursue higher learning, only 40% of these students graduate with four-year degrees, compared to 55% of those whose parents hold a postsecondary degree.
Still, with the help of Girls Inc., Michelle Alpizar and Laura Flores plan to beat the odds.
Michelle and Laura, who are both members of Girls Inc. of Carpinteria, have been awarded a total of $25,000 in college scholarships through the competitive Girls Inc. National Scholars Program. Chosen from among more than 100 applicants, Michelle and Laura are two of 23 young women in the nation selected for this honor.
“These are such driven young girls and young women,” said Jamie Collins, Girls Inc. of Carpinteria executive director. “We’re reinforcing the impact made on girls’ lives. Girls Inc. adapts and offers programs you can’t get anywhere else. Giving girls opportunities like this is phenomenal and life changing.”
Established in 1993, the scholar program recognizes members who demonstrate academic excellence and a commitment to their communities. Every year, Girls Inc. of Carpinteria nominates five candidates to the program. Over the years, they’ve had 32 recipients take home 35 awards, as some girls have won twice, totaling $228,500 in scholarships.
“I definitely think this is something Girls Inc. of Carpinteria prides itself on,” said Ms. Collins. “A lot of these girls win at the national level and go on to win many local awards that can help them in the long run.”
While Michelle considered local scholarships, she set her sights higher.
“I really, really wanted to go to a four-year college after high school,” she said. “I’m a first-generation student, so I didn’t think that would be possible without a lot of aid. And I have nothing to lose in applying.”
Instead, she had everything to gain.
Of the 23 national recipients, the 17-year-old Carpinteria High School senior is one of only 13 to score the full $20,000 scholarship. Knowing how big of a difference this would make for her family, Michelle couldn’t help but get emotional when she heard the news.
“I stayed quiet for a few minutes because I just needed time to process,” she said.
Growing up, Michelle’s life at home and in school was tough. But at 6-years-old, she found refuge at Girls Inc. of Carpinteria. Though unsure when she began, feeling out of place with the girls around her, Michelle has come to love the organization like a second family.
“Girls Inc. was somewhere safe to be after school that overall gave me a new home,” Michelle said. “Being surrounded by all the girls and friends made my social life a lot easier. The staff supported me. They always asked how I was going and helped me with my homework. It helped life some of the weight off my shoulders.”
By the time middle school rolled around, Michelle found her footing at Girls Inc. and wanted to do more. In the sixth grade, she took part in the organization’s Will Power, Won’t Power program, an extended sex education class that goes beyond what’s discussed in schools.
Soon, she found herself in Eureka!, a five-year program that prepares girls for college, and this is the reason Michelle is where she is today.
Michelle’s parents are immigrants from Mexico, and no one in her family had ever gone straight to a four-year college. In fact, neither of her parents went to high school.
“I always knew I wanted to go to college,” she said. “That’s why my parents came here. To give me and my sister a whole new opportunity they didn’t have being born in a different country.”
Now, with the help of Eureka!, college is no longer just a possibility for Michelle. It’s her future.
Already accepted by a few CSUs, Michelle is waiting to hear back from UCs and has a clear idea of what she’ll study at her final choice – child psychology.
“All of the experiences I had growing up with the troubles I went through and the obstacles I faced led to me to want to help children that were in the position that I was in,” she said. “I was fortunate enough to receive help. And that’s completely changed the view I have on life and the way I’ve lived in the past few years.”
Girls Inc. not only gave Michelle a clear career path, but also introduced her to other members, like Laura. As the co-captains of Girls Inc.’s basketball team, Michelle couldn’t believe someone she knew so well had also earned a scholarship.
“I saw my name, but then I saw (Laura’s) under mine,” Michelle said. “I wanted to tell her so bad, but I waited so she could see for herself.”
Surrounded by a group of young girls, Laura got wind of her $5,000 scholarship at the Girls Inc. Teen Center, the organization’s primary source of programming for 6th through 12th graders. To her, this meant more than the dollar amount itself.
“It was one of those full circle moments,” she said. “I started (there), and they were telling me that what I did in (that) room paid off and would help me a little more in life.”
From the moment she started in sixth grade, Laura took advantage of all the Girls Inc. had to offer. Business literacy, event organization and health education were among the many programs Laura gravitated towards at the Teen Center. But out of everything, classes on stress management, mental health and personal development made the most impact.
“I remember one activity we did was a stress web, where we talked about what we were stressed out about and our fears,” Laura said. “We didn’t realize how stressed we were until we started opening up about it. Girls Inc. helped me learn how to manage my mental health.”
With stress management mechanisms in her back pocket, Laura was able to challenge herself in school. On top of an honors-packed schedule, the Carpinteria High junior is her class’ vice president. As if her schedule wasn’t full enough, Laura is also a member in several school clubs.
Yet Laura’s interest in leadership wasn’t innate. Through elementary school, she avoided roles that drew attention. But that all changed in her new all-girls environment.
“I was able to use my voice in the Teen Center,” Laura said. “Once I did, I never turned back.”
Equipped with confidence, Laura has found her voice in more ways than one, traveling to Panama as a translator last summer and interning as a teacher at the Boys and Girls Club. Like Michelle, she used the Eureka! program to push past the barriers first generation students face.
“My parents told me I should go to college, but I didn’t see the big picture,” she said. “My parents didn’t go to college, and they were putting a roof over my head, so I thought maybe I don’t have to go. But growing up, I saw that my parents couldn’t provide me with resources I needed.”
Laura spoke primarily Spanish at home, and left without regular exposure to English, her classes became increasingly difficult. Fortunately, Girls Inc. filled that gap, but Laura knows other kids aren’t as lucky.
“Not everyone can come to Girls Inc. and experience the things that I did to be able to go on and pursue a career or college that they’re happy with,” Laura said. “That’s what made me want to be a teacher.”
Though too early to say where she wants to go to college, Laura knows Girls Inc. has shaped her life and will continue to for years to come.
“I always joke that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without Girls Inc., but the more and more I think about it, I really wouldn’t be where I am today without Girls Inc.”
For more about Girls Inc. of Carpinteria, go to girlsinc-carp.org.