After spending months working on the application for a full-ride scholarship, Makayla Valdez didn’t think she had a chance at winning it.
She lugged her laptop computer around at all times, in case she had a little time to work on the essays and other documents needed for the Gates Millennium Scholarship.
That time was hard to find, as she balanced classes at Columbia Basin College as a Running Start student, her two part-time jobs and other commitments.
She learned in mid-April she’d qualified for the scholarship, which will cover her costs to attend the University of Washington — all the way through the doctoral level, should she choose to pursue graduate studies.
Makayla, who graduated from Chiawana High School last weekend and will receive her associate degree from CBC on June 17, first shared the news with her mother, who had long stressed the importance of education and encouraged her daughter to push herself.
“I cried, I cried with my mom,” she said.
Makayla was born in Pasco and has always lived in the Tri-Cities. She changed schools frequently as a child, however. She attended two Pasco elementary schools before she and her mother, Veronica Tovar, moved to Kennewick to live with family. She attended two more elementary schools and middle school there before returning to Pasco for her freshman year at Chiawana High.
Despite those transitions, school usually came easy to Makayla, she said. She was often ahead of other students in her classes. She became involved in sports and other extracurricular activities as she got older.
“What I remember most about her is she always had a smile on her face, was always positive and never had a bad thing to say about anyone,” said Bryan Meredith, a Chiawana High assistant principal.
It was a logical step to also enroll in Running Start, which allows juniors and seniors to attend college classes and earn credits toward a college degree without paying tuition. All of it was part of Makayla’s plan to pursue a career in nursing.
“I’ve always had a plan, since I was little,” she said.
That plan, and the need for it, was largely driven by Tovar. She gave birth to Makayla when she was 15 and attending Pasco High School. However, she still graduated from high school on time and immediately enrolled at CBC herself and attended classes for two years. She stopped attending just short of earning her associate degree, a result of her struggles in math, a full-time job and the demands of parenthood.
Tovar eventually went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in business management when Makayla was in middle school. Even before that, she never let a day slip when she didn’t tell Makayla how crucial her schoolwork was.
“I was probably a little bit harder than I should have been, because I wanted her to be great,” Tovar said. “I didn’t have someone telling me how important school was. It was up to me to change that.”
Tovar added that if she’d known about Running Start in high school, she would have pursued it.
Makayla said her mother wasn’t strict about school, just encouraging. In fact, sometimes school would even get her in trouble.
“I’d stay up until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. and I’d get in trouble for doing homework,” she said, laughing.
CBC President Rich Cummins said Makayla is a prime example of the type of student the college serves with its Running Start program. He anticipates seeing more students like her in the coming years, drawn to the program because of its ability to put students on a fast track academically, but also save thousands of dollars in tuition.
“Real achievement in life is obtained through hard work,” Cummins said. “For students who are really motivated to excel academically, Running Start is great. It’s a model that should be expanded like crazy.”
Earning the Gates Millennium scholarship, which helps high-achieving students from minority groups pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields, made all that work worthwhile, Makayla said.
She’s comfortable with college-level studies and ready for a little more independence. The only thing she was sweating with graduation looming was not being a financial burden on her mother, who is still raising a 10-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter.
The scholarship means Makayla won’t have to work part-time while at UW, and she should be able to study abroad at some point in the next few years.
“I can breathe a little,” Makayla said. “One of the things I told my mom when I got the scholarship was ‘you’re welcome.’ ”
Tovar said she’s always known her daughter was dedicated, and graduation only drives it home.
“It’s made me proud,” she said of her daughter. “I can’t even describe it.”
A record 1,453 students will graduate from Columbia Basin College during the school’s commencement ceremonies June 17 at the Toyota Center.
The ceremony starts at 7 p.m. and is open to the public. The keynote speaker will be Elizabeth Castro, a former Running Start student and CBC alumna, who recently graduated from the University of Washington. She has been accepted into the master’s program at the Harvard School of Education to study education policy, was recently awarded a Fulbright scholarship, and will teach English in Mexico prior to continuing her education.
Most of the degrees awarded by CBC will be associate of arts and sciences degrees. More than 350 will be associate of applied science degrees, more than 100 will be one-year certificates, and nearly 100 will be bachelor’s degrees.