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Column: Scholarship winners overcome hardships, look toward futures

On Christmas Day in 2010, a neighbor shot and killed the father of Kaitlyn Puletasi Ena in the cul-de-sac near her home. Kaitlyn was a kindergartner at the time.

She didn’t let the tragedy derail her.

On May 27, 2022, Kaitlyn recalled her father’s death (she didn’t cite it as a homicide) as she stood on the stage to receive one of 17 Martin Luther King Jr. scholarships awarded by the city of Oceanside.

Scholarships presented at this 31st annual event totaled $100,000.

Although the awards are given in the name of the city, and under the aegis of its Housing Commission, all the money involved is collected from private donations.

Commission Chairman Inez Williams handed out the awards, and each winner posed with Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, and Fernando Hernandez, representing state Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath, D-Encinitas.

Noting many of the awardees are immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants, Levin told them his own maternal grandparents were immigrants from Mexico.

Winners included immigrants from the Philippines and Vietnam as well as Mexico.

Many told of the problems learning a new language — sometimes in only three years from immigration to graduation — and of the financial hardships they and their parents faced.

One, Anthony Gonzalez — who previously received an arts award from Levin — had spent some time sleeping in his father’s truck when he was otherwise homeless, He told of listening to the rain splatter on the vehicle’s metal roof.

Others wrote of constant fear and anxiety that they would come home from school to find a parent deported again.

Each had to write a biography, an essay on what Martin Luther King Jr. meant to them and submit letters of recommendation, often from a teacher or counselor who responded with high praise, saying the student was the best-ever.

Most belonged to the National Honor Society, compiled top grade-point averages, held down part-time jobs, as well as performed many hours of community service.

Kaitlyn said in her essay that “my whole life, I’ve always wanted to make an impact on people’s lives.” A cheerleader, she intends to study kinesiology and become a physical therapist. She wants to show minorities especially that someone “genuinely cares.”

Gonzalez wants to become a probation officer and work with young people.

Another awardee, Michelle Torres, has lifted her sights from times when “we did not have anything to eat” in her family to becoming a U.S. senator, representing California. “I will make a difference in the world,” she vowed.

One scholarship winner, Maya Juache, lost her mom to cancer March 7.

Another, Yelenny Hernandez, plans on becoming an oncologist — a goal since her grandfather died of cancer when she was 6.

Top award winner Mycah Gutierrez plans to become a psychiatrist to “destigmatize mental health for minorities like myself.” She is ranked fifth in a graduating class of 638 students.

Only one scholarship winner, Emma Do, the immigrant from Vietnam, missed the awards ceremony and that was due to a conflict with graduation at MiraCosta College.

To be eligible, applicants must live in Oceanside or be seniors at an Oceanside school.

Scholarships varied from the lowest, $2,500, to the highest, $15,000. Awards of $4,000 or less were for one year. Those for $5,000 were for two years and those of $8,000 and up over four years.

As always, the awards ceremony was held during a garden reception at the Oceanside home of Janet and Stephen Lacy. She is one of the founders of the program.

Winners from Oceanside High School: Torrey Stapp, $10,000; Yelenny Hernandez, $10,000; Dianne Ibarra, $8,000; Anthony Gonzalez, $8,000; Michelle Torres, $5,000; Ariane Pagunsan, $5,000; Ariele Campos Hernandez, $5,000; Coral Garcia Santiago, $4,000; Andrea Ortiz Lopez, $4,000; and Melissa Hernandez, $4,000.

Recipients from El Camino High: Mycah Gutierrez, $15,000; Kaitlyn Puletasi Ena, $5,000; “Emma” Quyen Do, $5,000; Angela Hernandez Lira, $3,500; Emily Mendoza, $3,500; Maya Juache, $2,500; and Keondre Grayson, $2,500.

Sherman is a freelance columnist. Contact her at [email protected]