Dexter College Student Receives $120,000 Scholarship

Dexter college student Paula Salazar recently received the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship for Undergraduate Transfer Students. The scholarship awards each recipient up to $40,000 a year for three years.

The scholarship is specifically for students of community colleges who plan on transferring to a 4-year school. There were 47 students across the U.S. who received the award. Paula was the only one in Michigan selected.

The coveted scholarship is tough to get and competition is fierce. Determining factors are excellent academic achievement, the quality and nature of leadership roles, and an impactful background story. Paula completed numerous essays describing her back story and what she has overcome, her current school experience, financial need, and future aspirations.

At age 22, Paula has quite a story. “I lived my childhood in El Salvador,” Paula told me over breakfast at Riverview Cafe. “Instead of hearing the birds in the morning, you hear gunshots. I lived in one off the most dangerous cites in El Salvador.”

The danger wasn’t just outside the home for Paula. “My biological father was very abusive to my mother,” she said. “She was hospitalized eleven times because of his abuse. Finally when she couldn’t take it anymore, she took us kids and we ran away.”

“My mom is my hero,” Paula continues. “I never remember being hungry when I was a child. My mom worked as many jobs as she had to in order to get food. She always found a way to take care of us.”

Paula’s mother remarried and the family moved to Belize when Paula was age 10. Her stepfather had the promise of a job there from a government official. Three months into the job, it had all been part of a scam and the deal crumbled. Her stepfather, an engineer by trade, was unemployed and the family was once again without income in a strange country with no family, friends, or connections.

Paula’s home in St Ignacio, Belize

“We went through a really difficult time in Belize,” Paula says. “For years I remember not having any electricity. Both of my parents needed surgery. I had to quit school. My brother lost his scholarship to school. I remember sitting in my closet for long periods of time just crying and crying.”

It was during these hard times that young Paula’s faith was forged. “Without my faith I wouldn’t be here,” she says. “During those years I learned to persevere and believe in something greater even though it didn’t look like it.”

From those difficult and humble beginnings, Paula eventually ended up living here in Dexter attending Washtenaw Community College. The stunning transition was a series of one thing leading to another as things always seem to do in spiritual matters.

Paula’s faith led her to begin working with Praying Pelicans, a missionary group working in Belize. She loved working with people and helping them where she could, figuring this was her life’s calling. Meanwhile, Dexter United Methodist Church connected with Praying Pelican’s and partnered with Paula’s home church, Omega Ministries, in San Ignacio, Belize where her mother is currently pastor.

During a visit to their sister church by a group from DUMC, Pastor Tom Snyder got into a conversation with Paula about her goals in life. Paula remembers explaining to him how she wanted to help people,  but never put her future plans in the context of more school. She served and helped out and was happy with that. Paula also felt further education was selfish because there were so many who don’t get any at all.

Paula seated with a group of children at her home church in Belize

Back in Dexter, Michigan, Pastor Snyder found sponsors to support Paula if she wished to come to the United States to further her education in order to help people in a larger way. Paula simply didn’t see how it was possible. Too many immovable mountains. The biggest one being that she worked to pay her parents rent. If she left, how would they pay rent? Jobs are scarce and the unemployment rate is north of 21%. There is no government assistance. Giving up an established household income borders the absurd.

Another roadblock was procuring the needed F1 visa which “is impossible to get,” Paula says. “But over the course of eight months everything resolved, even problems we hadn’t told anyone about. I was almost denied the visa but Tim Wahlberg’s office got involved and I got it. So I quit my job with Praying Pelicans and here I am.”

Paula enrolled in Washtenaw Community College and graduated this past Saturday, May 19, with an Associate’s Degree in Liberal Arts. Her plans are to go on and study international affairs with the hope of getting into international law. She has been accepted to U of M but is also waiting to hear from several Ivy-League schools.

“I have a huge heart for crime and poverty in Central America,” Paula says. “I surely want to start out doing things in Belize, working to change policy. I want to have a good degree from a respectable school that can open doors and opportunities for me to be in a place of influence where I can affect change, influence people, open up opportunities for people.”

Washtenaw Community College Vice President for Instruction Dr. Kim Hurns tells Paula she has won the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. Photo by Kelly Gampel

Paula would also like to help do something about the crime and poverty in what is called the “Northern Triangle” of Central America which consists of the countries El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. “Those places are said to have some of the most dangerous cities in the world besides the warzones in the Middle East,” she explains.

Paula knows from first-hand experience the power that lies within people, their potential in the face of tribulation and a lack of opportunity. It is this indomitable human spirit that drives her forward. She says,

“I’m very passionate about people who come from small beginnings – people who have had no resources but have figured out how to continue. I’m going to call it ‘faith’. There is a drive inside of people that once they find what they are passionate for, they give their all. There is a faith inside of them that really drives them to do things they never thought they would do.”

“The scholarship is the stepping stone to achieve what my heart cries out for every single day ­– to be able to serve the people in Central America, my native land,” Paula says.

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