How do you keep going when your world is falling apart and you want to give up? You remember what your mother told you: "Querer es poder … Where there's a will, there's a way."
That no-excuses attitude is what distinguishes Juan Dominguez, Mary Kujak, Jamie Scott and Aubrey Wetzelberg. They are the winners of the 2013 Barnes Scholarships, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times Fund.
Scott attends Pinellas Park High and Wetzelberg goes to Dunedin High, both in Pinellas County; Dominguez is a student at King High in Hillsborough County; and Kujak attends Ridgewood High in Pasco County.
They are eligible to receive up to $15,000 per year for four years of study at an accredited U.S. college or university. The scholarships were established in 1999 to help high-achieving students who had overcome significant obstacles. They are named for Andrew Barnes, former chairman and CEO of Times Publishing Co. Since 2000, 52 students have been selected as Barnes Scholars, and 36 have graduated from college. Four more will graduate this spring, from Harvard, Cornell, Florida State and Bowdoin College.
The 2013 winners were among 10 finalists selected from 318 applicants. High school seniors in the Tampa Bay Times' audience area of Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties were eligible to apply.
Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of the Times Publishing Co., praised the students for their accomplishments.
"In the face of adversity, our young neighbors have already demonstrated great ability and gritty determination," he said. "They aspire to attend some of America's finest universities, and it's a great pleasure to help them seize those opportunities."
The six runners-up for the 2013 Barnes Scholarships are:
From Hillsborough County, Beth Burford of Armwood High School; Trenton Couture of Lennard High School; Crystal Jonas of Plant City High School; Elina McGill of Strawberry Crest High School. From Pinellas County, Jasmine Laska of Pinellas Park High School. From Citrus County, Valerie Thoroyan of Crystal River High School. Each will receive a one-time $1,000 award.
The winners and finalists will be honored at a luncheon on April 23 at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg.
The stories of the 2013 Barnes Scholarship winners epitomize what it means to make the most of a difficult situation.
Juan Dominguez, 17, recognizes that his life hasn't been easy, but he questions whether it has been so bad. After all, he says, he has friends, family and a home. "I believe that Querer es poder … Where there's a will, there's a way. I (have) no time to focus on obstacles … if I want to accomplish my ambitions."
Born in Cali, Colombia, Juan was 2 when he was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, an inherited disorder of the connective tissues. He needed open-heart surgery to correct an aortic aneurysm, the first of seven surgeries. When he was 4, Juan, his mother and 17-year-old sister immigrated to the United States. With both women working and going to school, Juan was doing chores by the time he was 8.
"It was as a family that we excelled, with my mother directing at the forefront," he said.
When Juan was 14, his father was seriously injured in an auto accident. His father's long recovery deeply affected Juan, and his grades fell. His mother helped him refocus and move forward as "a humble and good student."
At King High School, Juan is in the top 2 percent of the IB program, with an unweighted GPA of 3.59. He is an AP Scholar with Distinction. Fluent in Spanish and French, Juan helps lead the Spanish and French honor societies and is a member of National Honor Society, Key Club and Thespian Honor Society. He played trumpet in the band and has been active in musicals and plays at King. He has volunteered for Relay for Life and the Lowry Park Zoo. "I believe that it is all the life lessons — not the obstacles — that molded me into who I am," he said. Juan wants to study engineering and sociology. He has applied to several schools, including Stanford, Rice and the University of Pennsylvania.
Time management is Mary Kujak's extra-special talent. It is how she has been able to juggle a more-than-full schedule and still accomplish all her goals. She is valedictorian of her class of 260 at Ridgewood High School, with an unweighted GPA of 4.0. She is an all-county athlete in four sports — volleyball, basketball, softball and track. She has accumulated more than 800 hours of community service. And she is a dual-enrollment student at Pasco-Hernando Community College. How does she manage all that? "Just do it," she said.
Growing up, Mary succeeded and excelled amid harrowing circumstances and abuses at home. It wasn't until the courts became involved that these circumstances changed. Eventually, her parents divorced. Yet, Mary and her mother still struggle, in a much different way, to make ends meet.
"I loathe what happened but cherish it for what it taught me and how it shaped me into who I am," Mary said. "I am assiduous, focused and rely on my faith. … I believe that God is preparing me for something great."
Mary, 18, is an AP Scholar with honor who has been on the straight-A honor roll for four years in high school. She is a member of Mu Alpha Theta, the National Honor Society and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She also participated in Youth Leadership Pasco County.
Mary plans to major in pre-med, with the goal of being a medical examiner. She has applied to Stanford, Fordham, Pepperdine and Rice. She has been accepted at Baylor, Texas Christian University and the University of Florida.
His grandparents rescued Jamie Scott, 18, from growing up alone. Jamie's mother was in and out of his life until she died in 2010, the victim of a tragic accident. His maternal grandmother raised Jamie and taught him to love learning. She especially encouraged his interests in math and science. Then, four years ago, when she began struggling financially, Jamie's paternal grandparents became his guardians so he could attend school uninterrupted at Pinellas Park High. Jamie's favorite subject is physics because it "explains how and why the things around me work and interact using the simple language of math."
He plans to major in physics in college, "but I also don't intend to let my education end there, because what I want to be in life is an academic. I can honestly say I want to keep going back to school 'til the day I die."
Jamie is fourth in his class of 382, with an unweighted GPA of 3.91. He is president of the English Honor Society, treasurer of Mu Alpha Theta and co-captain of the Academic Team.
He is a member of the National Honor Society, Law Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society and the Florida Public Service Association. He was his high school's Hall of Fame Outstanding Student in Math in his junior year.
Jamie has applied to MIT, Harvard and Caltech. He has been accepted to the University of Florida. "I hope to never stop learning, because that's where I thrive."
She was 10 when her parents divorced. Aubrey and her siblings moved from Atlanta to Dunedin to live with her grandparents. A few years ago, when her siblings moved back to Atlanta to live with her father, Aubrey chose to stay with her grandparents and finish high school in Florida. She stays in touch with her family in Atlanta and her mother and two other siblings in New York through the Internet.
Music and mirrors have been part of Aubrey's life since she was 3. She loves to dance and can do it all — hip-hop, jazz, pointe, folk dance. Aubrey teaches at Studio Dance Company in Clearwater, and she has helped with some choreography for musicals at Dunedin High School since 2011. But when she enters Georgetown University in the fall, she plans to major in international relations.
Aubrey, 18, is salutatorian of her class of 289 at Dunedin, with an unweighted GPA of 3.87. In July, she will graduate from St. Petersburg College with her associate's degree through the "Fast Track BA" program. She is a member of the Spanish Honor Society, the National Honor Society, the International Thespian Honor Society and the varsity cheerleading squad. She also has volunteered more than 100 hours at Kimberly Home Thrift Store in Clearwater.
"I want people to know that regardless of what you grow up with, and what hardships you face, it is possible to overcome it and still be the best you can be," Aubrey said.