Nayeli Cervantes has 12 nieces and nephews under the age of 10.
It will be years before any of them start applying to college and picking their degrees, but the Chiawana High School senior has made it her mission to start planting the seeds of higher education now.
“I want to be a different example and show them that it is possible to succeed,” she said.
Cervantes, 17, of Pasco, will be the first in her family to go to college when she attends Seattle University in the fall. After receiving $10,000 on Friday night from the Hispanic Academic Achievers Program, she is feeling even more secure in her financial future.
She couldn’t hold back her tears when she was announced as the top scholar at HAAP’s 26th annual awards and scholarship ceremony in a crowded Toyota Center in Kennewick.
A record 5,126 students were honored during the program, with $83,258 donated by HAAP sponsors for 26 scholarship winners.
Cervantes knew she would be getting a scholarship, but didn’t imagine she would be in the top spot because “it was such an amazing group of students.”
“It’s an honor to represent the Latinos. There is no greater pride I can have in my culture,” she said.
She is ranked first in her class with a 4.0 grade-point average, and already has several other scholarships and grants. She plans to get a degree in criminal justice with a minor in Spanish, go on to law school with a focus in immigration, and eventually become a judge.
Cervantes is one of six in the state to get a $1,250 scholarship from the Association for Washington Cities’ Center for Quality Communities. That award came on the recommendation of Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins.
Cervantes, who has three older sisters and one younger sister, said she is teaching her extended family the importance of staying in school and pursuing a college degree. In her scholarship application, she said she wants to swim against the current instead of going with the river, in the hopes that others will follow.
She credited parents Irma and Martin Cervantes with pushing her.
“They’ve worked so hard to provide a home and a living environment for me and my sisters, and to give them back with an education,” Cervantes said, her eyes welling up with tears.
Her father couldn’t attend the ceremony because he was at work, so her grandmother, Josefina Rodriguez, took his place. “It pushes me more having the support of my family.”
The program, which was started in 1990, encourages high academic standards among Hispanic students in area school districts, including private schools. It recognizes fourth- through 12th-grade Hispanic students who earn a 3.0 GPA or better through the current academic year.
Though Cervantes was HAAP’s top scholarship winner, two other seniors ended up receiving more with a last-minute infusion of money from Central Washington University.
Angelica Avalos and Irisbeth Avalos, both of Chiawana High, each got a $13,629 scholarship sponsored by the university. Angelica plans to pursue a degree in accounting and Irisbeth is looking at elementary education.
Daphne Gallegos of Pasco High was given an honorable mention Friday for being a role model to other HAAP students. The program had planned to award a HAAP scholarship to Gallegos, but she recently learned she is a Gates Millennium Scholar, which will cover the cost of her education.
Gallegos, who will graduate with a 4.0 GPA, will pursue a degree in molecular and cellular biology at the University of Puget Sound.
Keynote speaker Gabriela Whitemarsh reflected on her years attending the program as a HAAP student and ultimately getting the top scholarship when she graduated from Pasco High. She is director for MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) at Columbia Basin College in Pasco.
Whitemarsh told the audience that as the daughter of Mexican immigrants, she worked very hard to achieve success in school and in life. Her parents encouraged her to set specific goals for herself, to follow the examples set by other HAAP scholars and to be a well-rounded student including sports and community service.
Whitemarsh said when she was a teen, the question from her parents was never if she was going to college, but what college she would be attending.
“Students, believe in yourself. You have the power to do what you want to do,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that our community grows day after day. No one is going to do it for us.”