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Four Tampa Bay area students overcome odds to become Barnes Scholarship winners

For one student, it was being "the poor kid." For another, it was growing up a world away from his father, now a disabled U.S. Army veteran. For a third, it was her parents' devastating divorce. And for a fourth, it was mounting bills, foreclosure and caring for his ailing grandmother.

This year's winners of the Barnes Scholarships, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times Fund, embody much more than the adversity they have faced. Yet their academic and personal triumphs in spite of the odds distinguish these high school seniors.

Alvin O'Garro, Manuel Tejeda, Mackenzie Marques and Jonah Free were chosen from a pool of 371 applicants among Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. They are eligible to receive up to $15,000 per year for four years at a U.S. college or university.

The scholarships are named for Andrew Barnes, the former chairman and CEO of the newspaper's parent company, Times Publishing Co. The scholarships have been awarded since 1999 to 65 high-achieving students who have overcome significant obstacles.

Recipients will be honored at a luncheon on April 28 at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg.

Here are the stories of this year's winners.

Alvin O'Garro, C. Leon King High School

Growing up "the poor kid," as Alvin O'Garro dubbed himself in his application essay, meant relying on food stamps and hand-me-downs. It meant taking the city bus to school. And it meant O'Garro, now 18 and a senior at King High School, "was always the outlier, the poor kid who wanted the benefits of a better education."

O'Garro, of Tampa, ranks 60th in a district of more than 12,000 students. He qualified as a National Merit semifinalist and scored a 2350 on the SAT. In difficult moments, he focused on his ability to direct his future.

"Even if everything was down in the dumps, I could still believe I had control of where I was going, that I had the skill and could put in the effort to change what was going on in my life," he said.

O'Garro is intrigued by the possibilities for innovation in the engineering and computer science fields. He has applied to Georgia Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others.

Teachers called him "one of the brightest, more naturally gifted students I have taught" and noted his "tremendous depth of intelligence" and work ethic. He has competed with Mu Alpha Theta, a mathematics honor society, and is an AP Scholar with Distinction.

Manuel Tejeda, T.R. Robinson High School

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.

"I always wondered what he had brought to Iraq in his luggage. I realized that the luggage he carried was the remainder of my childhood," Tejeda wrote in his application essay.

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, he said.

"If my dad can go through whatever he's going through to support me and my family, I need to keep doing what I'm doing and help out as much as I can," Tejeda said.

Mackenzie Marques, Gulf High School

Math and science bring Mackenzie Marques a sense of assurance in a world that hasn't always been so certain.

The last few years in the life of the No. 1 ranked student in Pasco County have been filled with difficulty, most notably her parents' divorce in 2011. Marques, 18, lives with her mother at her grandparents' house in Hudson because her family lost their home in a short sale after the sudden split.

"The only constant I could rely on was the perpetuity of my family," she wrote in her application essay. But when her father left, she wrote, her entire understanding of life tilted on its axis.

She began to question her strong Catholic faith, delved into her I.B. classes and looked at the world through a new lens. Now, she wrote, "I am merely a human being longing for the truth."

A National Merit semifinalist and the president of her school's National Honor Society, Marques is awaiting a decision from her dream school, Duke University. She's interested in exploring biomedical engineering there.

She scored a 2210 on the SAT and belongs to a dozen clubs, sports teams and honor societies.

"I don't even think I can express how grateful I am," Marques said of the scholarship. "I really think this shows that hard work does pay off."

Jonah Free, Gibbs High School

For three straight summers, Jonah Free's family couldn't afford to cool their St. Petersburg home. The roof leaked. His grandmother was ailing, and Free and his mother stayed up night after night caring for her. The bills piled up. Free's mother lost her job, and soon the bank began to foreclose on the home.

Throughout it all, Free, 18, excelled in arts classes at his high school, worked part-time and stage-managed productions. He scored a 32 on the ACT and has been accepted to his top school, Emerson College in Boston, where he plans to study theater design and technology and explore the entertainment industry.

"I have something that a lot of people around here don't," he said. "It's something I'm passionate about and something I really want to live for."

Free's grandmother passed away in early 2013. Since then, life has calmed down. He's still not sure what got him through those difficult years, but his passion has something to do with it.

"Maybe I realized it was all toward a goal, that everything I experienced would kind of build me up to be better as a person," he said.

Contact Claire McNeill at or (727) 893-8321.