Editor’s Note: This post was written and submitted by George Melchor, a member of the Eta Beta Chapter at Southwest Texas Junior College and a 2014 Jack Kent Cooke Scholar.
In search of a better life, my parents separately immigrated to the United States when they were children. They met during high school, fell in love, and achieved their American Dream by providing for and supporting our family in this nation of opportunities. I am a proud, first-generation Mexican-American college student.
I had a lot of self-determination growing up and always wanted to do my best. Poised to be fourth in my high school graduating class, not once did I consider community college a viable choice for higher education. It had been highly stigmatized in my community, and I honestly thought it was a place for those who failed to be accepted elsewhere.
However, once graduation was upon me, reality struck. I realized the costs of attending a university were simply out of reach. I could not bring myself to financially burden my parents with loans and ultimately decided that attending Southwest Texas Junior College (SWTJC) would be my best, and really only, option.
I worked two to three jobs every semester to pay for my tuition and save for my eventual transfer. I followed this routine for four semesters, not ever really getting involved in my community college. In my fifth semester, however, my life would change dramatically.
I had been invited to join Phi Theta Kappa every semester since I began attending SWTJC but had been too preoccupied with my classes and work schedule to give it a second glance. A dear friend of mine convinced me to accept my invitation, and ever since then I have not looked back.
I got involved with my local chapter, Eta Beta, and attended the Texas Regional Convention and then the international convention. I attended not knowing much about Phi Theta Kappa, and ended up leaving as a Texas regional officer. Initially, I was worried beyond belief about accepting this opportunity. I felt behind in my educational journey, but I was convinced yet again to roll the dice and see it through.
I also actively searched for scholarships, since I had learned this was a major component to Phi Theta Kappa. During a conference that year, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation (JKCF) Undergraduate Scholarship was showcased, and I knew I had to apply.
Applying for the JKCF Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship was an endeavor to say the least. It required me to delve deep and reflect on everything that had brought me to that point in my education and in my life. The application process required me to ask for help from so many people. I honestly felt it was my entire support team applying for the scholarship.
After months of waiting to hear back from JKCF, I was convinced I had not won. But, in a surprise announcement, in front of most of my peers, I was named a winner of the Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, and once again my life changed dramatically.
Not only did winning the scholarship allow me to attend an amazing undergraduate institution (Austin College), but it also fulfilled a mission of mine. I had finally succeeded in securing my pursuit of a higher education without debt.
My situation was not unique; there were plenty of able, hard-working students in my community who could not afford college. I seized the right opportunities, leaned on a support system, and believed in myself when it mattered most. It was one of the most freeing moments in my life, and I was proud of myself. I was unafraid in that application and embraced my life story, probably for the first time.
At Austin College I made amazing friendships and benefited from support systems comprised of faculty, staff, and administrators that allowed me to thrive. I was allowed to conduct independent research on cancer biology, to present that research at a national meeting in a poster competition, to intern for an educational non-profit in Washington, D.C., to study comparative identity politics in Europe, and to ultimately find my passion in the neurosciences and learn what it means to be a scientist.
I’ve also had the unique opportunity to serve as an advisor for Phi Theta Kappa at Grayson College. To give back to the organization that changed my life has been monumental for me. This experience was full of many amazing triumphs (our chapter was named No. 2 in the world this year) and many opportunities for growth. I will cherish each of these experiences forever.
I have recently been accepted to the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Program in neuroscience at Georgetown University. I have also been awarded a Georgetown University Healy Fellowship that will ensure funding for my Ph.D. for five years.
I can trace my current position and this next step in my educational journey back to the moment I decided to join Phi Theta Kappa. The moment I decided to give this organization a chance to change my life, it did.
I am grateful to Phi Theta Kappa and all the friends and family that I have made along this journey for shaping me into the person I am today. I am ready to excel in graduate school, to learn more, to continue seizing opportunities, and to positively influence the world and all the people I will continue to meet as I venture forward in life.