As a bewildered kindergarten student on Sept. 11, 2001, Manuel Tejeda struggled to comprehend the destruction of the Twin Towers. He thought it was all a game. Two years later, his father left for Iraq on the first of four deployments that would eventually leave him 80 percent disabled.
His father's post-traumatic stress disorder and other injuries left Tejeda with many responsibilities at a young age. His mother, who emigrated with his father from the Dominican Republic more than 20 years ago, never fully learned English. Tejeda himself struggled to learn the language's nuances.
Now 18, Tejeda ranks in the top 1 percent in the district and scored a 34 on his ACT. He has been accepted to Stanford University, his dream school, and is weighing financial aid options before deciding on a college. He plans to study engineering, which his father studied before enlisting. A winner of the Barnes Scholarship, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times Fund, Tejeda embodies much more than the adversity he has faced.
How did you feel when you found out you were selected?
I was really surprised because there were a lot of top students interviewing when I went to interview. I was just overwhelmed with joy because it meant I didn't have to look for more scholarships. It meant I could just choose schools based on whether they fit me the best and not in terms of money.
Do you know what school you are going to attend?
No, I have no idea yet. I'm still trying to decide between Stanford, Harvard and Columbia.
Do you know what you want to major in?
If I go to Stanford, I'll major in mechanical engineering, but if I went to Harvard I'd major in economics because their engineering (program) is not too good.
How important is education to you?
Education, I believe, is very important, because in the real world you need to know more than just how to repeat a process and memorize facts and figures. You need to know how to solve problems you haven't faced before and just work on your feet and solve things you've never encountered before. And that's the true goal of going to college. I think a lot of companies these days look for leaders who can adapt to different situations when they need to, and that's something I hope to accomplish.
Do you have an idea of the career you want to pursue after college?
I was thinking of either creating my own startup or going into finance and working on Wall Street. Those are my two options right now, and I just don't see myself anywhere else.
Claire McNeill, Times staff writer, contributed to this article.