SJSU in the News: Scholarship Winner Overcomes Adversity, Thrives at San Jose State

Motivation helped her clear hurdles to college, land scholarship;

Priscilla Elizalde’s life in the barrio wasn’t conducive to higher education

Originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune Feb. 27, 2011


Priscilla Elizalde is thriving at San Jose State University.

“It’s awesome. I love it. The teachers are so accessible and helpful. I’ve made a lot of friends,” she said last week, sounding like a typically enthusiastic 18-year-old freshman.

But Elizalde’s path from Barrio Logan to San Jose State was hardly typical. In fact, just a few years ago, such a journey seemed most unlikely.

“I can remember the names of eight of my closest childhood friends: Miguel, David, Alan, Luis, Andy, Mauro, Kathy and Adriana,” Elizalde wrote in a prize-winning essay. “Currently, each one of them is either in jail, a young mother, involved in drugs, abusive relationships, or gangs. I am the only one who overcame my community’s dangers and obstacles, the only one who attends college … ”

The essay also tells of how she used the “spirit-breaking” words of a school counselor who told her she wasn’t cut for college as motivation.

With a big push from the Barrio Logan College Institute and from supportive instructors at Kearny High School’s Stanley E. Foster Construction Tech Academy, Elizalde committed herself to academics after hearing the counselor’s painful evaluation in her junior year and won admission to San Jose State.

Now, as a result of the essay she wrote describing the challenges of growing up in a poor, undereducated neighborhood, Elizalde’s college path is looking straight and smooth.

Her essay, written over her recent Christmas break, won first place in the nationwide Rising Star Awards sponsored by Sun Life Financial, earning her a $50,000 scholarship.

“It’s really a big deal,” said Jean Libby, college success coordinator for the nonprofit Barrio Logan College Institute. “A $50,000 scholarship means she won’t have to take out anymore loans. She won’t have to work part-time. She will be able to focus on school, graduate on time and without debt. That will make a huge difference in her life.”

The Sun Life program awards $5,000 scholarships to 22 students from around the country, each nominated by a nonprofit that serves inner-city, at-risk youth. The 22 students then write essays, with the winner earning an additional $50,000 scholarship. The financial services company also awards a $50,000 grant to each of the selected nonprofits. All 22 students, and representatives of the nonprofits, were flown to Miami over the weekend for a two-day summit at which tennis star Venus Williams was the keynote speaker.

Two other San Diego students, who each won $5,000 scholarships, also went to the Miami event. They are: Eric Jackson, who graduated from Elizalde’s high school and attends Mesa College, and Latrice Brown, who graduated from the San Diego School of Creative & Performing Arts and attends City College. They were nominated, respectively, by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego and Home Start, Inc.

Elizalde’s essay tells of witnessing beatings and drive-by shootings and lives lost to drugs.

Libby said there are no exaggerations.

“There are gangs here, there are drugs, the homeless. It’s poor. It’s cliché inner-city, but it’s true in Barrio Logan,” she said.

Although Elizalde had been coming to the Barrio Logan College Institute since she was in middle school, it took the disheartening exchange the counselor to spark. She described the encounter in her essay: “ … she said I was ‘dreaming’ if I thought I would attend college … I cried as I walked out of her office. Then I realized she would not determine my future. I used her spirit-breaking advice to motivate myself. I was determined to prove my counselor, and others who said I’d never go anywhere in life, wrong. It was then that I decided I would settle for nothing but an A. Every weekday I arrived at school by 7:30 a.m. to receive tutoring before class … After school, I received additional tutoring at my after school program, Barrio Logan College Institute, until 8:00 p.m. … I saw that all my hard work paid off when I received acceptance to San Jose State University one year later.”

Jason Klugman, director of the Princeton University Preparatory Program, was one of six academic experts that evaluated the students for Sun Life.

“What Priscilla laid out was a really compelling story of what happens in her neighborhood — her peer group didn’t include a lot of university experience — and a pivotal moment,” Klugman said, “when a counselor said college wasn’t for her.

“I think the committee found in the essay a quality and sense of self-reflection that told us that when was going to take this scholarship and go far.”