TAMPA — Jefferson High International Studies salutatorian Paola Guerrero stood before a jubilant crowd at the Florida State Fairgrounds last week and thanked God for the opportunity to speak at the commencement ceremony.
The audience applauded her expression of faith, but Paola's common sentiment gave no clue to the uncommon story that would follow in the next six minutes.
The truth is that modern medicine can't quite explain how she could stand on the stage and speak with such eloquence.
Only a few of her friends already knew what Paola shared. Most students didn't realize that three years ago, doctors found a benign pituitary tumor on Paola's brain.
"Yes, a tumor on the brain," Paola said as the crowd hushed. "I could have quit right there and then but I thank God he gave me the strength to continue with my studies and my life."
Doctors took a wait-and-see approach because the tumor did not cause any severe problems. When Paola returned six months later to get a second MRI, the doctors' reaction caught her off guard.
"Paola, what have you been doing?" they asked.
"I thought I was in trouble; I thought the tumor had worsened," she explained in her speech. "They told me that the tumor, this uncontrolled growth or mass of body cells, was shrinking. They said I have to be doing something. All I could say was the truth: All I've done is pray."
From there, Paola implored every graduate not to let anything stop them, and it certainly appears she will heed her own advice. The Gregory Foundation has awarded Paola a $20,000 scholarship, which she will use at the University of South Florida.
William A. Gregory was a self-made entrepreneur who didn't finish high school and never attended college. Yet, in his will he established a foundation to provide education opportunities he never enjoyed.
Six other students, all members in the Hillsborough County School District's Academies of Finance programs, received $5,000 scholarships.
The foundation focused on students in the finance academies at Armwood, Chamberlain, Jefferson and Brandon high schools, where past students have proved successful.
The other winners: Jahreil Bonner, Armwood; Jamie Doone, Chamberlain; Lindsey Burney, Brandon; Rakhee Patel, Armwood; Simonne Valdez, Chamberlain; Joshua Wallace, Jefferson.
Four of the seven winners will attend USF, with Wallace going to the University of Central Florida, Bonner to Florida State and Doone to the University of Florida.
The foundation feted the group with dinner at Bern's Steak House, and the kids spoke openly about staying in touch.
Initially, the foundation had planned to award $10,000 to the grand winner and six $2,000 awards to the other finalists. However, they were so impressed with this group they upped the scholarship amounts.
Choosing a grand winner proved difficult, but the foundation couldn't resist Paola's captivating story and impressive resume. In addition to being the salutatorian, Paola was named Ms. Jefferson (best all-around student). She plays the violin and volunteers at Metropolitan Ministries. She has interned at American One Insurance and recently won a Rotary oratory district contest.
She is so active at her church, Zion Pentecostal, that the church canceled services May 29 to attend her graduation. Members were part of the crowd that gave Paola a standing ovation when she concluded her speech.
"Even though I still have the tumor, the story will not end," vowed Paola, who will major in finance but has designs on going to med school.
That's all I'm saying.