MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block, with the second part of our series on paying for college. In America, we're told anyone can succeed, and a big part of that success is often a college degree, especially from one of the nation's premier universities. But with tuition at some schools running into tens of thousands of dollars, that promise is often an empty one for poor or working-class families. Today, though, we have a story from California. It's about one ambitious young woman and her family. When it came to college, they aimed right for the top. Here's NPR's Elaine Korry.
ELAINE KORRY reporting:
Stanford is famous for its beautiful campus: Spanish-style architecture amid meadows dotted with wildflowers, trees and fountains. On a gorgeous spring day, 19-year-old Rebecca Perez parks her bicycle at one of Stanford's many plazas. She says it still feels like she's living a fairy tale.
Ms. REBECCA PEREZ (Student, Stanford): Every day, like, I get up in the morning, and I just look at the campus and I say, `Man, I worked this hard for this luxury, fountains all over the place.' I don't hear traffic. I'm just in this little bubble.
KORRY: The first time she saw Stanford, Rebecca was a seventh-grader from the garlic fields of Gilroy, California. She'd won top honors in an essay contest sponsored by Stanford's Latino Student Center. Collecting her prize was a thrill, but the thought of actually attending Stanford seemed like a pipe dream. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Rebecca grew up on a produce farm in Gilroy, where her father works to this day.
Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)
Unidentified Man #2: (Spanish spoken)
KORRY: When he was still a boy in Mexico, Benjamin Perez left school to work in the fields. He's a stocky man in a blue plaid shirt. He came to the US in 1980 and has managed the irrigation system for this 2,000-acre farm ever since.
Mr. BENJAMIN PEREZ (Rebecca's Father): I wake up every day 5:00 in the morning to get ready to start at 6:00; make sure everybody show up at the right time. I like my job because I like to learn something every day.
KORRY: But he wanted his daughter to learn more than farm labor. When Rebecca was a little girl, Perez used to drive her through the fields in his mud-caked truck. He'd point to the workers picking tomatoes and tell her to study hard, so she would have more choices in life. And by junior high, his daughter was a fearless competitor. She took honors classes, volunteered at a homeless shelter and began collecting many more prizes.
Ms. PEREZ: We would have a speech competition; I would win the speech competition. We had to do--create little models of certain parts of the body in junior high. I believe I won for the gastrointestinal system.
KORRY: By late senior year, many students at Gilroy High School were coasting toward graduation. But while classmates fretted over prom dresses, Rebecca had bigger worries. She'd actually got into Stanford, where tuition and other expenses top $44,000 a year.
Ms. PEREZ: Second half of my senior year I was going insane.
KORRY: Rebecca's parents could only afford to contribute $2,000, so she worked at a sneaker outlet and applied for federal and state financial aid. But she knew that wouldn't come close to footing the bill.
Ms. PEREZ: I had to go looking for scholarships because it seems like it's just going to be me, the one that's going to be paying for most of it.
KORRY: With the help of outreach organizations, Rebecca discovered what many college-bound students may not know; that some $3 billion in scholarships is up for grabs each year. In fact, as much as $100 million goes unclaimed every year because kids don't know where or how to apply. But Rebecca found out. As early as junior high, she and her father attended seminars to learn how to hunt down likely sources of aid and then write winning applications.
Ms. PEREZ: I would say I filled out over 20 applications. It was a ridiculous amount of work.
KORRY: It took months of research, countless essays and non-stop pleading for teacher recommendations, but the effort paid off.
(Soundbite of paper being shuffled)
KORRY: Rebecca holds a thick stack of papers, each one a letter of congratulations.
Ms. PEREZ: This first one is the Gilroy Rotary Club academic achievement and service scholarship. It was $1,500. The next one is from the Latinos program scholarship at Gilroy High School. This one was for $500 and...
KORRY: Everything from a penny-jar collection at her grade school to a much bigger sum from the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation. Local businesses helped out. With government grants and an aid package from the university, she was in.
Ms. PEREZ: This is where I spend all my days at. I have my computer. I put on--some music up.
KORRY: After a morning of classes, Rebecca is back at her dorm. Her room is a little haven, crammed with books, stuffed animals and her Hello Kitty collection from years ago. She's always on the move, with five classes and a part-time job. Yet she manages to squeeze in one more of her passions: Aztec dancing. She reaches under her bed and pulls out a wild, feathered headdress and animal-skin drum.
(Soundbite of drum)
KORRY: Rebecca says the dancing is important to her. She's come a long way from Gilroy, but she doesn't ever want to forget her family's roots. One day Rebecca wants to go to law school, so she has many years of hard work ahead of her. When she looks through all those scholarship letters, she's reminded that a lot of people are counting on her to succeed. Elaine Korry, NPR News.
BLOCK: You can read a comprehensive report on private scholarships at our Web site, npr.org.
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