TAMPA — Paola Sequeira faced an uncertain future when she was sent from her native Nicaragua at age 8 to live with her aunt and uncle in Brandon.
She came with her 6-year-old sister Javiera and they spoke only Spanish. Their early years had been marred by tragedy — the death of their father, Roberto Antonio Sequeira, during an earthquake in Mexico and a plane crash in Managua that killed their brother and left their mother severely disabled.
But Sequeira forged a path through her new life, excelling at school and graduating first in her class at Brandon High School. She dreamed of becoming a doctor and took her first steps toward that goal at the University of South Florida.
Today, Dr. Paola Sequeira, 47, is an endocrinologist working as an internal medicine specialist serving largely low-income families at the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center.
Hers is one of hundreds of stories of Hispanic students with uncertain futures who credit their achievements to a program that helped pay their way through USF.
In the 30 years since it started, the Latino Scholarship Program has done more than pay the bills. It has created a community of support that helps ensure success in life for its recipients.
The program pairs scholars with mentors and offers a monthly professional development series teaching skills such as resume writing, dinner etiquette and networking.
“The sense of solidarity that characterizes this scholarship grows every year,” Sequeira said. “They are like a family.”
The latest recipients and those from the past were honored last month during the 30th Latino Scholarship Awards Ceremony in the USF Marshall Student Center.
“It’s a beautiful initiative,” said Jose Valiente, chair of the USF Foundation, which coordinates this and six other scholarship programs. “There are other similar programs in the country, but this scholarship is unique because nowadays the scholars give back and share their successes with the community.”
Valiente said he understands the importance and impact of the program. He’s a 1973 USF accounting graduate who came from a low-income household and was the first in his family to attend college.
“USF’s Latino Scholarship Program reflects a core commitment to help our talented Latino students access a world-class educational experience — not only by providing financial assistance, but through mentorship and community engagement,” said Rhea Law, the university’s interim president, during the awards ceremony.
The Latino Scholarship Program pays at least $2,000 per semester toward tuition and fees and is renewable for up to 10 semesters.
Each year, the program supports 40 new recipients and 100 returning recipients. All told, more than $4.2 million in scholarships has been awarded to more than 600 students. The money comes through donations, not government grants.
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The program is open to graduates of an accredited high school or community college in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Manatee, Pasco, Hernando and Sarasota counties.
Requirements include financial need, a 3.0 grade point average and completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Strong consideration is given to students fluent in Spanish and the first in their family to attend college.
The USF program may be unique among Florida universities for the community of support it provides, but many other financial aid options are available to Hispanic students through public and private sources.
Seventy scholarships of up to $100,000 each are advertised at one website, scholarships.com. And among the largest programs in the country is the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, which has given out $650 million in scholarships since 1975 and also provides a broad range of support services.
Hispanic high school graduates entering the University of Central Florida automatically are considered for a National Hispanic Scholarship, awarded to “recognize outstanding academic performance” and renewable for eight semesters.
Undocumented students are not eligible for the need-based Latino Scholarship Program, but they can apply for merit-based financial aid offered through the USF Foundation such as Status of Latinos or SOL scholarships.
Sequeira, who received a biology degree from USF and went on to graduate with honors from the University of Miami School of Medicine, was the first student to land a scholarship when the USF Latino Scholarship program launched in 1992.
One of the latest recipients is Eddy Antonio Santoyo, 20, of Tampa, who hopes for a career in financial planning. Santoyo, a junior, is majoring in Finance and Studio Art and is in his third year as a scholarship recipient.
It means he doesn’t need full-time work to pay for school: “It helps because it allows us to get ahead in our studies and achieve our goals.”
Santoyo’s parents, Carmen Cortes and Antonio Santoyo, came from the western Mexican state of Michoacán in 1996. From a young age, Santoyo saw his father struggle to earn a living as a construction worker, sometimes working seven days a week.
“They did everything to give us a better life and that’s what I want to do for my community,” Santoyo said.
His brother, Alexis, 23, also is a former Latino Scholarship Program recipient. He graduated in 2019 with a political science degree. The two are the first in their family to pursue professional careers.
“I am very grateful that I can focus on my future,” Santoyo said. “My responsibility is my studies and I want my parents to be proud of me.”