Hispanic Academic Achievers Program honors Mid-Columbia students

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMay 16, 2014 

The wait was killing Pasco High School senior Alvaro Contreras.

The 18-year-old had been on edge since turning in his scholarship application to the Hispanic Academic Achievers Program weeks ago, he said. He sweated as he stood on the stage at the Toyota Center with his mother, knowing he was still a little short of the money he needed to attend the University of Washington in the fall.

And after his $10,000 scholarship award was announced, first in Spanish then English, he hugged each announcer and his mother and anyone else near him.

"Now I know with this I can go," he said, smiling after coming down off the stage.

Twenty-six students were recognized and awarded $60,000 in scholarships Friday at the 25th annual HAAP awards ceremony. Certificates were handed out to 4,600 students who have maintained 3.0 grade-point averages.

The total amount of scholarship money awarded is down from the $66,500 given out last year. But officials said the program still has strong support and will continue for years to come.

And for the students who received scholarships, the program has only made their hard work worth it.

"I'm going to be able to help my parents live a better life in the future, and that's great," said Kennewick High School senior Karla Bahena, 18.

HAAP was founded in 1990 to encourage high academic standards among Hispanic students in the Kennewick, Pasco, Richland, North Franklin, Finley and Columbia school districts. Private schools Liberty Christian and Tri-Cities Prep also participate.

HAAP President Liz Villanueva-Torres said fundraising for the scholarships went well this year. A few new sponsors have stepped forward and their support will help provide scholarships for years to come.

"It's amazing to be able to help them," Villanueva-Torres said of the graduating seniors.

Many of the honored seniors will be the first in their families to attend college and, in a few cases, to graduate high school. Being the first to leave home for college can be a scary experience, said Frank Armijo, one of HAAP's co-founders and the event's keynote speaker.

Armijo was nervous when he headed to Eastern Washington University years ago after finishing at Columbia Basin College, he said. He never dreamed he would end up working for Lockheed Martin as president of Hanford contractor Mission Support Alliance. It all happened because he was willing to do something different, he said.

"One of the best things you can do is challenge yourself," Armijo said.

Many of the students had impressive academic records announced before their awards, from high GPAs to student leadership positions and time spent volunteering.

But they also showed they were willing to work hard, such as Kennewick High senior Consuelo Contreras, who arrived in the U.S. 21/2 years ago unable to understand English. But she spent a year memorizing 15 new words a day. She graduated with a 3.98 GPA and received a $3,000 scholarship.

"I knew if I worked hard enough America would help me," she told the Herald.

For others, being able to attend college just means their families' efforts and support wasn't in vain.

"I did this all for myself but also to make my family proud," said Southridge High School senior Christian Gomez. Born in Mexico City and having lived in the U.S. since he was 2, Christian became a U.S. citizen last year.

Though they knew they'd worked hard to earn their scholarships, Friday evening was a little surreal. During a group photo after the awards were handed out, an event photographer chided Alvaro as photos were being taken.

"I just got $10,000, how do you expect me not to blink?" he laughed.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service