Southridge grad heading to Stanford with Gates scholarship

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMay 26, 2014 

When a thick envelope addressed to a Southridge High School valedictorian arrived in mid-April, her mother was skeptical.

Only weeks before, a similarly-sized parcel from Stanford University arrived for Gianna Nino, 18. She'd been accepted to attend the prestigious California school for the fall term.

The second envelope was from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she'd applied for a college scholarship.

"My mom said you can't get both," Gianna remembered. "That's too much luck for one year."

But it was her lucky day.

She'd received a Gates Millennium Scholarship to cover any gaps in financial aid left after what Stanford provides.

Family and educators said she earned it for her top-flight academic performance, involvement in extracurricular activities and dedication to helping others.

The adversity she has faced, from her family's financial struggles to moving to a new state halfway through high school, makes Gianna's success that much sweeter.

"There's a million reasons for her to not succeed and that's what's so cool about her," said Southridge High Principal Steve Biehn.

Love of learning

Gianna, the oldest of four children, was born in Hermiston but spent most of her life growing up in Umatilla.

Money was tight. Her family lived with some aunts in a mobile home for a while, and she helped her mother, Susana Nino, work in the fields.

School and reading provided a diversion from struggles at home.

And Nino supported her daughter any way she could. She made flash cards and pushed her to memorize multiplication tables so Gianna wouldn't be dependent on calculators.

"I wanted (my children) to get ahead in life and have time to do what they want to do and not have to spend all their time working," Nino said in Spanish with Gianna translating.

But Nino's own limited education and lack of English made it difficult.

"I read to her (in English) every day in elementary school and she later told me she didn't understand it," Gianna said.

School in Umatilla brought its own challenges. Though she grew up speaking Spanish at home, Gianna was educated alongside English speakers.

Her English quickly improved but she sometimes felt culturally isolated.

The Umatilla School District, which has about 1,400 students, had good teachers but didn't have the resources to offer many advanced high school courses.

Finding a path

Gianna, her mother, sister and two brothers moved to Kennewick in the spring of 2012. The move was partly to provide a fresh start after Nino separated from her husband but also so she wanted to be closer to Mid-Columbia agriculture jobs.

Gianna was halfway through her sophomore year by that point and had some catching up to do, both academically and in finding her place at Southridge, said Elida Rodriguez, the school's migrant graduation specialist.

It wasn't long after meeting Gianna, though, that Rodriguez realized she didn't have to worry.

"Some kids move and it's a huge impact," Rodriguez said. "She's always proactive, always wanting to volunteer."

Gianna enrolled in Advanced Placement classes and other challenging courses, maintaining a 4.0 grade-point average. She participates in soccer, cross country, basketball and track and recently went to a state band competition where she played the bass clarinet.

She also tutors others students in math and English.

That intensity and sense of purpose is always going with Gianna, said Kristina Hocking, her literature teacher. Gianna recently finished the last book for the semester and asked Hocking for the quizzes early because she didn't want to sit idle.

After several students took the test, Hocking allowed them to relax by playing Pictionary in class one day and Gianna helped her team on to victory.

"She doesn't just do stuff," Hocking said. "She throws herself into it 100 percent."

Difficulties at home

Living and attending school in Kennewick is more expensive than Umatilla, Gianna said. She works with her mother in the fields during the summer to help make ends meet.

When it came time to apply for college, her mother supported her but could not give her much advice.

Rodriguez guided her through the application process, with Gianna sending requests to about 15 universities.

Gianna asked Hocking to review and edit her admission essays. It was a difficult favor to ask, Gianna said, because she wrote about her background and her family's struggles.

"I try to keep that to myself," Gianna said.

The Southridge High community also helped her. Staff donated money to help her to fly to Stanford for a visit arranged by nonprofit QuestBridge which recruits diverse students to universities.

And when Gianna learned she was accepted it was overwhelming for her. Rodriguez said she also cried.

"I thought she'd do something good but not something this good," said her sister Jennifer, 16, a Southridge sophomore.

Looking forward

While Stanford is among the best universities in the nation, it also is far from the Tri-Cities.

When Nino learned that Stanford is in California, she asked her daughter to consider Gonzaga University in Spokane, where she'd been accepted to the nursing program.

Gianna wanted to take advantage of the opportunity Stanford will provide but also dreaded leaving her family behind. Her mother still relies on her to translate at doctor appointments, and Gianna also helps her siblings with schoolwork.

In the end, she opted for Stanford, partly for her own future but also to serve as a role model for her siblings -- so they know it's possible, she said.

"(Ms. Hocking) told me we have to sacrifice a little to get something back," Gianna said.

Teaching was one possible career choice she's considered but she's currently planning to study pre-medicine.

For now, she said she's just excited to get started on the next chapter of her life.

She visited Stanford again a few weeks ago for a freshmen welcoming event, running with other incoming students down a path shaded by trees as Stanford students cheered them on.

"The energy there is perfect," she said.

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

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