May 24, 2016

With cheers and tears, TWF celebrates the Class of 2016

With the last few weeks of high school upon us, many seniors are preparing excitedly to don their cap and gown, collect their diploma and forge ahead on their next journey of higher education. However, for many students, the road to graduation, and subsequently to a four-year college, is not without its obstacles. For first-generation college students or students who are the sons and daughters of immigrants, that road to higher education can be fraught with insecurities, confusion and financial limitations. But with the guidance of the Tiger Woods Foundation, that journey does not have to happen alone.

On May 14, TWF hosted its seventh annual graduation celebration and luncheon at Chapman University. Parents, teachers and TWF staff came together for an afternoon to acknowledge the hard work of nine Orange County Earl Woods Scholars, who entered the program as high school seniors. The celebration gave the scholars an opportunity to reflect back on their past year with the foundation and share their gratitude with their families.

The afternoon opened with a warm welcome from TWF’s senior director of programs Cristina Fernández, who reminded the crowd of all the hard work the scholars have put in the last year. 

“During the selection process we received over 300 transcripts nominating students for the Class of 2016 cohort,” Fernández shared with the room. “The students we selected to move forward then had to endure a rigorous selection process of two applications and an interview. This resulted in our nine students we are celebrating this afternoon. Today’s nine scholars have collectively applied to nearly 50 colleges and universities, not including the Cal States and UCs and received their acceptance letters this past March and April. We look forward to working with this group of young people as they complete their four years in college.”

As the group of nine took to the stage, one by one, they each had a common thread run through their speeches: gratitude for their team of supporters. From parents and teachers to TWF staffers, the 2016 cohort recognized the village that helped them get to where they are. Oscar Reyes, who attended the event with his parents, sister and grandmother, made it clear that his family’s sacrifice was not lost on him. 

“To my parents, who gave up their professional careers in Mexico so that I could pursue mine here, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said. 

With their eldest daughter studying at Columbia University, and with Reyes on track to study computer science at UC San Diego in the fall, it’s clear that their sacrifices have paid off. 

When Marcelo Quijano praised his mother, Blanca Menjivar, for all her hard work and perseverance in raising him, Menjivar humbly shook her head. 

“I want him to have a better life than me; that is my goal,” she quietly explained. Quijano, who will be studying integrative biology and cultural anthropology at UC Berkeley in the fall, not only applauded his mother, but thanked his math teacher for equipping him with the mental toughness necessary to succeed. 

“Ms. Chaudhry, you taught me that roadblocks are a state of mind and that there is no excuse for not working harder than 100 percent,” Quijano said.

For the students, they acknowledged that an integral part of their success was due in large part to the foundation. Manuel Colon, Anaheim Union High School District’s assistant superintendent, praised the hands-on approach taken by the foundation in guiding kids to a brighter future. 

“This will change the lives of these kids forever,” Colon said. 

For scholar Erica Rivera, the foundation served as a refuge. 

“The foundation offered me a warm sense of belonging,” she shared with the crowd. “I felt safe. I felt supported. Through this program I have learned to create opportunity for myself, and it has given me a thirst for knowledge.” 

And for her twin sister Jessica Rivera, TWF gave her the tools to “grow as a student and person.” The Rivera twins will no doubt take with them all they learned from the foundation and apply it to their studies at Stanford University in the fall. 

Like the twins, David Garcia holds the program close to his heart. With much enthusiasm, Garcia, who will be moving to Maine to study economics at Bates College, applauded the foundation and the “awesomeness that is the Earl Woods Scholarship Program.” 

“It is a truly special place to be at.” he said. “And it will always remain an important component of our lives.” 

Chris Camacho, who is heading to Boston to attend Tufts University, reflected on the day when his mother met TWF programs manager Denisse Jover. 

“My mother cried,” Camacho said. “Not only did she realize that I would graduate from high school, but I would go on to a college for four years.”

The outpouring of love ran both ways. Fighting back tears, Hilary Falk, senior director of programs at TWF, felt like a “proud mom” the entire afternoon. 

“Seeing this makes me so grateful for the program,” she shared. 

Anaheim High School biology teacher Cynthia Miceli, who attended the event on behalf of her two students, Quijano and Christopher Holguin, was beaming with pride for her boys. 

“These two boys that I’ve had have probably been two of the most amazing students I have had in my 10 years of teaching,” she said. “They’ve been remarkable, bright, innovative, creative, polite, good-mannered, hard working — just everything that you would think of in an ideal student; that’s these boys. I get emotional thinking about them leaving, and I have only known them for one year.” 

For Holguin, who plans to study environmental studies at UCLA, while his mother and stepfather were off working long hours to provide for him, it was his teachers who made their classrooms his second home.  

With plans to pursue a degree in biomedical engineering at UC Irvine, Vanessa Cruz sees a transformation in herself since joining the cohort. With a newfound sense of confidence, Cruz looks forward to moving into the dorms and gaining her independence, even though her mother, Melissa Cruz, teased her about dropping by the dorms with home-cooked meals. Throughout the luncheon, in fact, mothers half-jokingly fretted over teaching their kids how to do laundry and learn a few recipes before the fall, while many fathers fought hard to hold back their tears. 

For Ruben Tricareño’s father, Ruben Tricareño Sr., the afternoon stirred up much emotion. When his son departs for UC Irvine in the fall to study biology, Tricareño Sr. knows his son is also embarking on the beginning of his own life as a man, a life away from his constant care. Unable to hold back his tears, he simply said in Spanish, “my heart breaks.” But behind his tears, without any question, you see the overwhelming pride. And for Tricareño Jr., without the foundation his parents provided him, he knows his next steps into adulthood and academia would not have been possible. 

“Even though you didn’t have much to offer me other than your love and support, it was enough,” he said.  

Through cheers, applause, laughter and tears, the Class of 2016 truly made the room swell with pride. For longtime EWSP mentor Bill Borges, the afternoon allowed him to reflect back to a year ago, when he sat on the selection committee, deciding on the 2016 cohort of scholars. 

“When you think about last year, we got to meet them and pour over all the debate as to who would really be able to survive the program,” Borges explained. “And today to see them, they are already starting to flourish. They have that internal confidence and the gratitude for their teachers and parents. They are realizing that they’ve gotten this far, and now they really have to do the heavy lifting. This is where we go in and make a huge turn in somebody’s life. What better thing to be doing?” 

Champions of the unexpected for 20 years.