Hispanic Alliance honors 20 area students

New London — When William Ventura-Chavez thinks about his culture, he remembers the music and traditions he grew up with, and the countless mornings he woke up smelling his grandmother's cooking.

The senior at New London's Science and Technology Magnet High School says that, as a lighter-skinned Latino born in Puerto Rico, he's sometimes faced rejection — what he views as a denial of his culture — even by some in his own community.

"Even though some might reject me, I'm still there for them," he said in an interview Friday night, after accepting a Hispanic Alliance of Southeastern Connecticut scholarship along with 19 other students. "My whole objective is to kill them with kindness. To have the approach that I can succeed not only because of my culture. That I can bring them up and bring good into the world."

Alejandro Melendez-Cooper, president of the Hispanic Alliance's board of directors, said more than 240 scholarships had been awarded since the organization's first Noche de Gala in 2000. Doctors, scientists, lawyers, teachers, skilled workers and community leaders are among the past recipients, he said.

Tracee Reiser, chair of the scholarship committee that reviewed applications from almost 70 high school and college students, said the winners were "outstanding young people who achieved academically, complete a wide range of extracurricular activities and perform community service. They will strengthen our future and act as citizens, skilled professionals and effective leaders."

Winners are chosen based on a mix of academic success, involvement and financial need, organizers said. Organizers declined to say how much students received in the scholarships, but said the funds are applied to students' tuition.

Shalimar Ramos Wuyke, the longtime New London High School assistant principal, served on the scholarship committee. "When I read all the students' essays, I cried," she said.

She said the winners were the best investment in the future that sponsors and the Hispanic Alliance could make.

"We want them to give back to the community," she said of the students.

Scholarship recipient Christina Cruz, a Connecticut College sophomore, in her application essay wrote about how being Puerto Rican affects her everyday life and how she wants to combat inequality in education.

"I want to be able to help even out that playing field for students of color and especially Latino students," she said, noting she hopes to serve as a school superintendent someday.

Robert Parra, a New London High School senior who plays baseball and practices mixed martial arts outside of school, will use his scholarship at Springfield College, where he hopes to study pharmacology and pursue a medical career.

"It feels amazing," he said of the award, saying the success of the Latino community "doesn't get enough recognition."

Parra's mother, Aida Torres, was one of several parents crediting the Higher Edge program, which helps guide low-income and first-generation students through the wide range of logistical, administrative and emotional processes of applying for college and graduating.

"It really helps kids who don't have the guidance or all the information they need," she said.

Ventura-Chavez, who also took advantage of Higher Edge, is headed to Notre Dame to study computer science — "using technology to create art," he said. He'll also try out for the fencing team after competing in the sport since seventh grade.

He thanked the sponsors, more than a dozen local businesses large and small, for their generosity.

"It was a big eye-opener," he said. "There are people out there that want me to succeed and care about our education."

Other winners include: Yasmin Aguilar, Andrea Carrion, Elizanette Castillo, Jaylynn Claudio, Adeliz Cordero, Emil Cortorreal and Adriana Diaz of New London Science and Technology Magnet High School; Tesla Delcid-Pichardo of Three Rivers Community College; Brawndly Diaz of the University of Connecticut; Maria Fiestas of the University of Connecticut at Avery Point; Savannah Najarro of Waterford High School; Lawrence Ravel of Ella T. Grasso Technical High School; Angelica Rodriguez of Montville High School; Kevin Ruiz and Mariafernanda Vega of New London High School; Camden Salcedo of the University of New England, and Isis Torres Nunez of Connecticut College.

b.kail@theday.com

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