Stephanie Ruizesparza knows about rejection — she was turned down by almost all the scholarships she needed to make her dream of going to college a reality.
“I kept getting rejected from everything and I thought ‘Everything’s over. Why even try?’” she said. “I got accepted into a lot of colleges but there was always that catch that you had to pay this much money — I didn’t know if I could pay that much.”
About 95 percent of students at her school, John Hancock College Prep, 4034 W. 56th St., come from low-income families, according to state reports.
But the 18-year-old didn’t dwell on this, and earlier this month she became the first student at Hancock to win the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship, which will allow her to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this fall.
The high school senior was coming back from a field trip with her mom and younger sister when she got a message from a friend saying decisions for the scholarship were in. When she got home from the trip, she saw a big envelope but still doubted she had gotten the money. Her mom reassured her.
“I grabbed it and was about to open it but then she took it away from me and blessed it. And then she passed it back to me,” Ruizesparza said. “I was trying to read, but we were screaming and crying outside because we were really happy.”
Hancock counselor Crystal Gerner said she is not surprised by Stephanie Ruizesparza’s scholarship award. | Esther Castillejo/For the Sun-Times
The daughter of a homemaker and a self-employed carpenter, Ruizesparza is the second person in her family to get a full ride to college — her older brother, a student at Stanford, also got his expenses covered.
“Now we can just focus on my little sister,” she said.
Ruizesparza is one of 1,000 minority students in the country who received the Gates Scholarship this year. Gates pays for all expenses not covered by financial aid and federal programs. This means Ruizesparza’s college costs will be fully covered by the university’s financial aid award, the Gates scholarship and programs such as federal work-study.
“Where I grew up, many people don’t go to college and just my generation of family members started to go to college. I think it’s very important, especially for minorities, to start going into college,” she said.
The online scholarship application required eight essays, a nomination and letters of recommendation. Academics, leadership and service are three of the application requirements, but Ruizesparza more than met them, Hancock counselor Crystal Gerner said.
“The fact that she became our first student to receive the Gates scholarship is not surprising to me,” said Gerner, who’s been Ruizesparza’s counselor for four years. “We have a lot of involved students but very few that are at her level of commitment to the school. She really does excel.”
Ruizesparza has five times the 40 hours of community service required to graduate from Chicago Public Schools. Hancock’s environmental club, student council and Science Olympiad are just some of Ruizesparza’s commitments. She also volunteers at school events, was a mentor for freshmen at her high school, interned at a non-profit dance organization and took several years of French and Arabic.
Getting the scholarship is a win for Hancock that’s been long in coming, Gerner said.
“We’ve been chasing this scholarship for years,” she said. “Now that students see that a Hancock kid can do it, they’ll be even more motivated.”
Gerner, a counselor at Hancock for six years, said upcoming changes to the high school will also create a bigger pool of students who apply for prestigious scholarships. Hancock is slated to become a selective enrollment and citywide Career and Technical Education school next year, CPS announced last October.
Ruizesparza now hopes to study abroad at the university’s South Korea program, even though she goes into college without a set major.
“I’m nervous, but I’m excited just to see what awaits. I really hope I find a major that I want and that I make lots of new friends.”