By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
By any measure, McNary High School seniors Jessica Mendez-Vasquez and Justin Schneider defied the odds this year.
In March, both were named Gates Foundation Scholars, a college funding package that will pay for all their college expenses up through and including graduate work provided they keep up their grades. The Celtics were selected from more than 24,000 applicants for one of 1,000 scholarships.
The program was established by Bill and Melinda Gates to help knock down financial barriers for minority college students.
“When I was applying for scholarships earlier this year, my dad was the one who suggested the Millennium Scholarship and I told him, ‘No, I’d never get that,’” said Mendez-Vasquez, a first-generation U.S. citizen.
The application process itself is rigorous. Students must submit eight essays on a variety of topics.
“The prompts were hard. They ask what are your most challenging subjects and least challenging subjects and you have to talk about them at length,” Schneider said. Schneider has just enough Alaskan native heritage to qualify as a minority.
Mendez-Vasquez, who has a 3.7 GPA, plans to study biology at Pacific University with the goal of becoming a pediatrician. Before learning of the scholarship, she expected to attend Chemeketa Community College as part of the Chemeketa Scholars program, but the scholarship put larger aspirations within her reach.
Schneider, who has a 4.0 GPA, will be studying engineering at University of Washington in hopes of working in the aviation industry.
Mendez-Vasquez was inspired to become a doctor after experiencing health problems of her own as a child and, later, watching her younger siblings go through difficult periods.
“My younger sister has asthma and we had one incident where she was in the hospital and the doctors told us we were probably going to lose her,” she said. Fortunately, they didn’t.
One of her favorite activities is volunteering at Salem Hospital through the organization Empowering Latino Youth.
“I help people find their way around the hospital, answer phones and some filing, but my favorite part is helping out in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and getting to hold and care for the babies,” Mendez-Vasquez said.
Schneider said he was drawn to aviation, in part, due to his father’s influence,
“He’s always been interested in planes and it sort of rubbed off on me,” he said. “I like science and math so it seemed like a good fit.”
Mendez-Vasquez will be the first in her family to attend college and credited her parents, Hector Mendez and Reyna Vasquez, for never making it a choice, as well as inspiration for all she has achieved.
“My mom is one of my heroes. She works, she cooks, she takes care of us, she finds time to do everything and is always keeping me focused on school. My dad has always believed in me, he’s always there trying to make sure I have the best education and guiding me to the right path,” she said.
Schneider cited his parents and grandparents as major influences.
“They’ve always been right there supporting me and I’ve had some great teachers, too,” Schneider said.
Schneider is the son of Debbi Jones and Cary Schneider.