By Rachel Verbits
This fall, countless bright and ambitious students will pack their bags and head off to college. Due to financial difficulty, many won't.
Lindsey Fernandez and Shayla Oliphant are two of those exceptional Arizona high school graduates who originally believed a college education was out of their reach - that is, until the inception of the D-backs Helios Scholars program.
As part of a unique partnership between the Arizona Diamondbacks Foundation, Helios Education Foundation and the Arizona College Scholarship Foundation, Fernandez and Oliphant are just two of 40 Arizona high school seniors over the next five years who will realize their dream of attending college.
The defending NL West Champions have contributed $500,000 to the program, with an equal match from Helios Education Foundation for a total donation of $1 million to assist academically gifted students, ones with incredible stories of personal triumph, leadership, strength, hope and perseverance, continue their education at any four-year college or university in Arizona.
"It means a lot to me and my family," said Fernandez, who plans to use her college education to work toward a career in law enforcement. "My parents didn't have a chance at an education like this, so I'm very happy that I have the opportunity to do something that they didn't get to do. It's very motivating. I've had a few part-time jobs, and I got to experience what it's like to get paid minimum wage. I want more for myself."
With five of this year's inaugural eight scholarship recipients being first-generation college students, the McClintock High School grad's motivation to succeed came from the struggles she and her family have faced in the past. At a young age, Fernandez's mother became ill so she found a job to help her father pay the bills and keep food on the table. Dedicated to keeping her family together, the sociology major focused on her education.
"I didn't even think I'd get to go to ASU, because of my family's income," said Fernandez. "I remember growing up and hearing about the students there, thinking to myself that I could never go. When I found out I got the scholarship, I started crying. When you really want something and put all your energy and thought into it, it makes it so worth it. I was thrilled to find out that I'd be able to go to ASU."
Fernandez's story of perseverance and hope is just one that D-backs Vice President of Corporate & Community Impact Debbie Castaldo had originally envisioned when Helios Education Foundation forwarded their final list of recipients this year.
"Being a baseball team, we were looking for those champions," said Castaldo, "but we were more looking for those champions of life - kids who have overcome adversity to get this opportunity to go to college. For us in baseball, we are blessed to be able to help dreams come true and make memories every day, but to do it on a real-life level and invest in a student college education is something D-backs Managing General Partner Ken Kendrick and President & CEO Derrick Hall wanted to do for a long time and we finally found the perfect program to do it with a partner like Helios who also saw our vision and opportunity."
Like Fernandez, Oliphant will also be attending ASU in the fall, thanks to the D-backs Helios Scholars program. Growing up in a low-income household, the journalism major began raising money for her own college fund at the age of 12, selling candy bars door to door in the summer as part of the Arizona Youth Work Program and taking on part-time jobs in addition to a full school schedule.
"In the end, it really has been worth it," said Oliphant, who not only earned college credits through the Achieving a College Education (ACE) program while attending Mesa High School but also volunteered 243 community service hours. "You can basically get everything you want as long as you work for it and you don't give up. No matter what it is - if it's being a lawyer, or a doctor or a dentist - working hard is what it takes."
The other six 2012 recipients' stories are no less moving.
The eldest of eight children, and two with disabilities, North High School alum Nancy Flores will also attend ASU this fall in hopes of becoming a speech and language pathologist, so she can help others the way she's learned to help her siblings. Mechanical engineering major Andres Morales, whose complicated home life as a child motivated him to graduate from Trevor Browne High School at the top of his class, has served as a volunteer for the Teen Outreach Program to educate parents on at-risk teen behavior. Alhambra High School grad Jonathan Yamasaki will head to Northern Arizona University to pursue a business administration degree. He looks to create programs for at-risk teens, similar to his situation years earlier.
Three scholarship winners will head south to the University of Arizona. Darren Stroughter, who despite struggling in school and requiring extra study time, graduated from Gilbert High School with a 4.17 GPA and has already completed 48 college credit hours. A refugee from Sudan, Tucson High School's Ochana Otto plans to use his plant science and law degrees to help countries in need of sustenance. Patt Intarakamhang is pursuing an engineering degree, which he hopes will help change the world for the better. Graduating from Tucson's Desert View High School with a 4.34 GPA, he balanced schoolwork and time with his mother before she passed away.
On August 11, this year's eight recipients were recognized in a pregame ceremony at Chase Field, alongside D-backs players and staff who made generous contributions to the program, including Luis Gonzalez, Aaron Hill, Jason Kubel, Wade Miley, Miguel Montero, Charles Nagy and Chris Young. In addition to receiving their scholarship certificates, the students were presented with a new laptop computer (courtesy of Insight and Lenovo), a bike and a D-backs backpack full of gifts and supplies for college.
"I'm definitely a Diamondbacks fan," said Oliphant. "I've only been to a game once before with my parents and my brother, but being down on the field was pretty much a whole new experience."
By helping send 40 deserving high school seniors to college over the next five years through the D-backs Helios Scholars program, the team is excited to be able to further the dreams of exceptional students and ones who will strive to make a mark on the world for years to come.
"When we got the profiles, we knew these were our kids," said Castaldo. "They are incredible stories of personal triumph during difficult times and that's what we wanted to be a part of - we wanted to help a dream come true."