National scholarship propels one Russellville student into Ivy League

FRANKLIN LIVING MAY-JUNE 2024

Russellville High School senior Soraya Fonseca has big dreams for her future, and she took it upon herself to find a method to help her pave the way more easily.

Thanks to QuestBridge, a national nonprofit based in California that connects high-achieving low-income youth with cooperating leading colleges, she has been matched to Dartmouth and will begin attending college there this fall.

Path to college

Fonseca explained she learned about the program last year from an applicant who was ultimately rejected. She decided to “just give it a shot” and applied. “While I learned about the program from someone else, I did my own research,” she said. She began the process as a junior. They invited her to the national conference in Emory, where she attended camps and participated in intensive writing exercises to help prepare her for the next step: applying for the scholarship and seeking a match.

“It’s a really long process,” Fonseca explained. “The junior program is only supposed to help you apply as a senior. They let you rank up to 15 schools, and from there, you do all the supplementals – essays, interviews, whatever else is required. Ultimately, I was matched to my No. 1 choice, Dartmouth.”

Her plans right now include studying chemistry and then going into the pharmaceutical industry and doing medical research, specifically with regard to cancer treatment. “I want to go into medical research because there’s a lot of things that are really unknown right now,” Fonseca explained, “and I want to be an interactive part in change through pursuing this. My ultimate goal is to help people.”

She’s been talking to professors at Dartmouth already and got to make a visit there last summer. “QuestBridge equips you to have the opportunity to go to college with fly-ins, and you apply for highly competitive programs,” she continued, explaining this allowed her to visit seven schools. “QuestBridge accepts something like fewer than a hundred kids from all over the country to fly out. They flew me out to schools including Dartmouth, Washington University, Williams, Case Western and Emory. There’s a lot of great programs and resources for low-income students that I had never heard of.”

As part of the process, she applied for a college advisor, a former QuestBridge recipient currently attending Emory. “She was really the person guiding me behind the scenes,” Fonseca added, “helping me prepare for interviews and prepare essays. She would read my essays and give me feedback. Having that support from someone who knows the college application format was really helpful.”

Through participating in the program, Fonseca got to meet students from all over the country who she describes as being “just as dedicated to their education” as she is. “I got to meet kids who have similar ideas, similar goals and who were just lacking the income,” she added. “At the fly-ins, they have admissions panels, financial aid panels and writing practices for the essays – a really big part of senior application season.”

Fonseca said the process helped “round her out” as an applicant, which never would have happened had she not been accepted as a QuestBridge scholar. “It’s encouraging to meet other students in similar situations.

“I’ve found my community. Going to the colleges, I felt recognized, and I saw the diversity, the breadth of ideas, all of the people who are just genuinely curious and determined to get where they want.”

Fonseca said it’s “really encouraging,” not only for herself, but also for future generations. “I’ve met many incredible people through this process, and we are keeping up with each other. For those that don’t get a match through the program – around 80 percent – they can apply for regular decisions on admission through the QuestBridge process. This year, 75 people matched to Dartmouth, including me. Right now, it hardly feels real that I’m actually going to be able to go to college there because schools like that feel very out of reach to someone like me. It’s rewarding and a relief that all of this hard work is finally paying off.”

Fonseca said that out of around 40,000 students, 2,000 are accepted, and they are then matched across 50 schools. “It’s a full ride,” she added. “They pay for transportation costs, fees, supplies, books – everything.”

Why Dartmouth?

Fonseca explained Dartmouth was her No. 1 choice because it “reminds me of home.”

“Dartmouth is a really small campus with a really small student body. When I stepped off the bus last summer, it just made me feel comfortable and made me feel at home,” she said. “They also have really incredible resources for low-income students, as well as incredible research opportunities. I want to be on the front lines of medical research, and Dartmouth will get me there. One of the main goals for me is to work with children, and there are professors there working in childhood cancer research.”

‘She’s going to be a world changer’

Fonseca said a year ago, she was uncertain about her future because she didn’t yet know if she would be able to find a way to afford college. “My family didn’t have that money, and what’s really inspired me to make it to this point is the push my parents have always given me to go to college, expand my education and to do the things I want to do and be the person I want to be,” she said. “You have to be a finalist to even apply to the schools, and there are really slim chances to even get to this point.”

Fonseca is a dual enrollment student and active participant in the Upward Bound project on the Phil Campbell campus of Northwest Shoals Community College.

“Soraya embodies the values of excellence, dedication and community service that we strive to instill in all our Upward Bound students at NWSCC,” said Sherry Campbell, program manager. “Her success is a testament to her hard work and perseverance, and we are incredibly proud to have been a part of her journey.”

 

At RHS, Fonseca is the president of the chemistry club, as well as a Golden Tiger Bigs participant – a program of Big Brothers Big Sisters through which she mentors her “little,” a student at Russellville Middle School. “I get to help her with homework and play games on a weekly basis,” she explained. “The program is specifically to help underserved, underprivileged children in the community through matching them with a mentor to help with school and their homework because they might not be getting that support at home. We get to talk about school and friends and what’s going on.”

Fonseca said she “really resonates” with the purpose behind the Golden Tiger Bigs program because it helps children who come from backgrounds similar to hers. “It’s incredibly rewarding,” she added. “I love being able to help children who might feel lost or out of place and are struggling in school. It reminds me of how much I want to help people and how much that’s my ultimate goal.”

In addition, she is the vice president of the Alabama branch or an organization called Ask Us Another, a virtual tutoring program formed in California about five years ago. Fonseca said she facilitates matching tutors to students across Alabama. “The program is now in 12 states,” she added. “It was started by high school students.”

RHS principal Dr. Jeremy Madden said Fonseca serves as a positive role model for other students. “We are very proud of Soraya. She has worked extremely hard, and that commitment is paying off for her.”

One of Fonseca’s RHS teachers, Susan DeArman, agreed, adding, “I’m really proud of Soraya. With the QuestBridge program, it’s all on the student to fill out the application, get it all sent in and do the follow-up when they get an email back about opportunities. She was in one of my advanced placement language courses, and she also participated in Scholars Bowl for a couple of years. Soraya is very passionate and committed. She has a lot of big dreams for the future. The sky’s the limit for her.”

DeArmann describes Fonseca as “very conscientious,” as well as “dedicated and driven,” noting she’s “always got all of her assignments completed, usually early, and then wants to know how she can improve on them.”

Another of Fonseca’s RHS teachers, Stephanie Mayfield, said Fonseca’s work ethic sets her apart. “I had the opportunity to have her during the summer session for a Spanish class she chose to do on her own time because she’s such a self-starter and a go-getter,” Mayfield said. “When you meet her, she is not one to brag on herself, but she’s got a thirst for knowledge, and she’s going to be a world-changer. She’s amazing.”

Beyond college pursuits

What about after college? “Since I’m going to be in New Hampshire, I think I would like to live somewhere up north similar to that,” Fonseca said, “and maybe one day I could be a professor at Dartmouth. Out of the 10 schools I ranked, this was my top pick, and I definitely love that school.”

The scholarship includes a travel allowance to go home twice each semester.

“I’m so proud,” said Fonseca’s mother, Antlnia Fonseca. “I was surprised and really excited. I have to say thank you to all the people that helped Soraya get to this point.”

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