When Santa Rosa Junior College student Vanessa Nava got called into the college president’s office about a month ago to be congratulated for something, she figured it was about one of the competitive summer internships she’d just landed.
She was wrong.
Instead, the first-generation college student had won a scholarship worth up to $40,000 a year to a four-year college of her choice.
Nava is one of just 55 junior college students across the nation to receive the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. Community colleges view the rare accomplishment the same way four-year universities brag about the number of Nobel Prize winners they have on campus, SRJC President Frank Chong said.
“All I could say when they first told me was, ‘Wow,’” Nava said. “I had no words.”
Nearly 3,000 junior college students applied for the scholarship, which is awarded to students looking to transfer to a four-year college after graduation.
Where Nava will apply the funds, though, is still up in the air. The 22-year-old Rohnert Park resident is deciding between Cornell University and UC Berkeley, with an ambitious goal of working in health journalism and being a doctor.
The scholarship also makes her eligible for an additional $50,000 a year when she goes to graduate school. Her current plan is to head to medical school after she attains her bachelor’s degree, though she’s not sure what she wants to specialize in just yet.
This summer, she chose to intern at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, helping with AIDS research.
When Nava graduated from Rohnert Park’s Technology High School in 2013, she was deflated.
“At Tech High, it’s very competitive,” she said. “At least, my class was very competitive. So that started to bring down my confidence because I wasn’t considered one of the smartest in my class. So that was the first factor, and then I didn’t get accepted to my top-choice university.”
At the time, her No. 1 pick was UC Irvine. Now, facing an education from two of the top universities in the nation, she’s OK with that.
“I did get accepted to UC Irvine this time, but it’s not my first choice anymore,” she said, laughing.
She credits her parents, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico more than 20 years ago, for her motivation.
“Since the beginning, ever since I can remember, I just knew that education was really powerful,” she said. “I always heard them say, ‘If I had the chance to have gone to college, I would have done this,’ or ‘I would have done that.’ It’s just a huge motivator to know that they wish they could have done this, and now that I have the opportunity to actually do it, I can’t put it to waste.”
Chong is not aware of any other SRJC student winning the scholarship since he arrived at the campus in 2012.
“I think the power of Vanessa’s accomplishment is that she really speaks to a lot of young men and women who come out of high school and they’re expected to know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives, to be finished products, and they’re really works in progress,” he said.