TWENTY HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS who overcame adversity on the road to graduation each received an educational award of $1,500 from Sandia and Lockheed Martin. The students said in remarks at a May 7 ceremony that the award will help them reach their goals. (Photo by Norman Johnson)

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Sandia LabNews

Sandia helps teens who conquered adversity move from high school to college


TWENTY HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS who overcame adversity on the road to graduation each received an educational award of $1,500 from Sandia and Lockheed Martin. The students said in remarks at a May 7 ceremony that the award will help them reach their goals. (Photo by Norman Johnson)

Ashley Carriaga was a senior at West Mesa High School when her brother was murdered. “It was the worst feeling in the world. He was my best friend, my rock,” Ashley says. “It tore my family apart.”

Ashley reached for support at school. “It was a struggle to get up every day, but my friends were there for me,” she says. “ Teachers, administrators, and counselors also helped me get through it and back on track to graduate. There was a lot of kindness and understanding.”

Lupita Lopez faced a different kind of challenge. She was born blind in Culiacan, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States with her family as a young child. At age 8 she had to learn new languages. “It was hard because not only did I have to learn English, I also had to learn how to read and write Braille in both English and Spanish,” she says. “I also had to learn mobility skills, how to use a cane and navigate around places, and the whole school system. And I was adapting to a new culture.”

Lupita kept a positive attitude and had the support of friends, teachers, and school administrators who integrated her into regular classes. Her drive took her to the top quarter of her senior class at Albuquerque High, where she took advanced placement classes and will graduate with a bilingual seal.

Angelo Romero was a victim of bullying by a sports teammate at Rio Grande High. When he spoke up he became an outcast at school. Angelo confronted the bully with a letter that was read in court and reported in the media. “I knew that being a victim was not going to defeat me,” he says. “I know right from wrong. There were times when I had doubt, but I had to fight for what was right.”

Ashley, Lupita, and Angelo are headed to college. Ashley has been accepted to the University of New Mexico to study nursing. Lupita will major in psychology at UNM. Angelo is going to New Mexico Tech to study mechanical engineering.

All three will have help from Sandia and Lockheed Martin Corp. They are among this year’s 20 Thunderbird Award winners who each received $1,500 in recognition of their exceptional ability to overcome significant personal challenges on the path to high school graduation.

Stories of courage

Family, friends, school principals, advisers, and mentors of the winners attended the ceremony at the Embassy Suites. Also on hand were representatives of the New Mexico congressional delegation and state Department of Education, members of the Albuquerque Public Schools board, and superintendents Winston Brooks of APS, Sue Cleveland of Rio Rancho Public Schools, Bernard Sais of Los Lunas Public Schools, and Ron Marquez of Belen Public Schools.

The stories were filled with examples of courage. There was D’Ambra, who has been living on her own with no financial help since her sophomore year, working full time to pay her rent. Celine was diagnosed in her sophomore year with thoracic outlet syndrome, which caused a deadly blood clot under her collarbone and ribs and resulted in rib re-section surgery. Cassaundra was raised by a single mom who died of breast cancer last year, leaving her to maintain the household and become a mother to her 12-year-old sister.

“It is impossible not to be touched deeply by these young people,” said event emcee Frederick Bermudez, senior manager of Public Relations and Communications Dept. 3650. “They are amazing role models to anyone who has faced a challenge.”

The road to higher education

Each of the honorees is headed to college with a career goal. Majors range from sociology to education to sports administration.

Ashley says her dream is to work as a pediatric nurse. She says the Thunderbird scholarship will help her get there. “It means a lot,” she says. “I will need all the help I can get.”

Lupita says she wants to become a counselor because she’s outgoing, enjoys talking to people, and wants to help others as she was helped. “I am really limited on money, so this award is very important,” she says. “It’s going to help me pay for college. Every bit helps.”

Angelo wants to work in the automotive industry. “After all the tragedy I went through, this award is a real positive,” he says. “I’ve learned that nothing can hold me back.”

Paul said Sandia wishes all the recipients continued success in life. “Throughout our lives, we all make choices that determine our character and our future. This year’s recipients of the Thunderbird Award have already demonstrated they know how to make the right choices, which are often the tough choices,” he said. “You exemplify the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. You are an inspiration to everyone here.”