University of Northern Iowa senior Vanessa Espinosa is the only Columbus Community High School alumnus that has ever given back to the school. She does not have a high paying professional job or a large family inheritance. She is a first generation college student from Conesville, Iowa.
After graduating from high school, Espinoza started a scholarship fund for high school seniors at Columbus Community High School. The fund supports two or three scholars annually that Espinoza picks herself with the help of a small panel. She includes a box of chocolates and a letter with advice when awarding the scholarship.
“It’s not a lot of money,” said Espinoza. “I always give them cash because when I started college I didn’t have money for anything. All the little expenses nobody thinks about affects whether you go to college and your college experience.”
Students who apply for the scholarship are required to write a short essay and provide a letter of recommendation, but never have to disclose their grade.
“Grades don’t define you,” Espinoza said. “What defines you is your spirit to overcome things. I think that is what makes you a stronger person and makes you a person who is willing to work hard.”
Espinoza funds the scholarship from her own pocket. She raised money for the scholarship last summer by working at a Chinese restaurant.
“Hopefully, one day I will have more money to give,” said Espinoza. “But, sometimes I have to work at a buffet washing dishes. The recipients don’t know that, but that’s okay”
Espinoza thought about no longer awarding the scholarship because the limited funds she was providing made her feel like she was not making a difference. Espinoza, who receives the Roy J. Carver Scholarship, changed her mind after attending a reception for her scholarship.
The reception focused on paying it forward -- a message that was perfect for Espinoza.
Espinoza said, “I decided after I had attended the reception I need to keep paying it forward. The Roy J. Carver Scholarship reminded me that I am doing a good job, making a difference and need to continue to pay it forward. I continued on because of my scholarship.”
Espinoza hopes to give back to her community in the near future by becoming a Spanish teacher within the area. Espinoza would become the first Latina teacher at her former high school, serving as a role model at a school that 65 percent of students are Hispanic.
“I feel like there are people that are born to teach, and I definitely am one of them,” said Espinoza. “I didn’t have anyone that I looked up to that was my color. I think in order to make a difference you have to be the difference. I have to go back and make a difference in my community.”
Espinoza still has a year left at UNI before she will graduate and pursue that goal. She spent her summer completing research on first generation Latino college students in the Midwest before a fall semester of classes and a spring semester of student teaching abroad in Brazil and locally in Waterloo, Iowa. Walking across the podium as her families’ first college graduate will have a significant meaning to Espinoza.
Espinoza concluded, “It will mean that I achieve the American Dream. I wasn’t born in this country. My parents brought me here because they wanted me to have a better education. The fact that I will be the first one means that I am breaking that barrier, and I’m opening a door for my siblings.”
If you want to help provide scholarship to students like Vanessa, please visit http://www.uni-foundation.org/.