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Scholarship Recipients Pay it Forward, Enhancing USF's Success in Closing the Latino Graduation Gap

Latino Scholarship Program celebrates 27th anniversary

USF alumna Melizza Astacio Etienne (center) with the two students she's supporting through her scholarship donation, Kevin Velez-Santiago (left) & Elian Trujillo (right).

As a University of South Florida student more than a decade ago, Melizza Astacio Etienne wasn’t sure how she was going to pay for her college education. Then her phone rang.

“It was such a surreal situation because I was literally panicking about it,” said the former first-generation college student. “So, when Patsy [Sanchez, Director of Latino Scholarship] called me and told me I was going to get a scholarship, I remember having to sit down because I just couldn’t believe it. It was an amazing feeling knowing someone wanted to sponsor me to go to school.”

A recipient of USF’s Latino Scholarship Program in 2005, Astacio Etienne still remembers the sense of relief and appreciation she felt after receiving that call. It’s a feeling she’s now passing on as a donor to the same program that helped her all those years ago.

The Astacio-Etienne Family Scholarship, managed by Latino Scholarship at the USF Foundation, is providing financial support to USF freshmen, Elian Trujillo and Kevin Velez-Santiago. As first-generation college students themselves, Trujillo and Velez-Santiago echo many of the same concerns Astacio Etienne had when she was a student. It’s that inherent connection, they say, that makes the scholarship worth more than just money to them.

USF Ranked #1 in the Nation for Latino Student Success Among Public Universities

“The financial support from the scholarship is obviously incredible but with this program we also get Melizza,” Trujillo said. “She’s always there to support us, give us advice and answer questions when we’re struggling. It’s so much more than just the money.”

Born in Cali, Colombia, Trujillo and his mother came to the United States under political asylum when he was child. Growing up, Trujillo says he watched his mother struggle financially and knew he wanted to find a way to take the burden of his college education off of her shoulders –something he’s been able to do, thanks to USF’s scholarship opportunities.

Both he and Velez-Santiago say their experience with the Latino Scholarship Program has also motivated them to one day give back and continue the cycle of ‘paying it forward’ that is presently helping them achieve their dreams.

“Seeing how Melizza is able to help Elian and I, it really opened my eyes to giving back to our community and helping others,” Velez-Santiago said. “It really motivates me to hopefully do the same thing one day.”

Patsy Sanchez, director of the USF Latino Scholarship

After nearly 30 years, USF’s Latino Scholarship Program has raised $5.5 million in endowed funds and has supported almost 500 undergraduate students. Thanks to the Helios Foundation, donors are also able to have their contributions matched, dollar-for-dollar, effectively funding two scholarships in one.

“Our graduates are changing the narrative of future generations who will no longer be the first ones to attend college in their families,” said Patsy Sanchez, director for diversity and inclusion as well as the Latino Scholarship. “They are truly ‘a gift that keeps on giving,’ not only making a difference through their professions but returning to USF to bestow on someone else the gift they once received.”

Sanchez say this year’s cohort of recipients is the largest ever, with 140 students receiving scholarships through the program.

“I am incredibly proud of the accomplishments of our hard-working and dedicated students and alumni and grateful for the generosity of those who continue to support this scholarship fund now for nearly thirty years,” said USF System Provost and Executive Vice President, Ralph Wilcox.

For Astacio Etienne, her scholarship represents more than just her financial ability to give back. It’s her fulfillment to the program’s slogan, ‘we must lift as we climb’ – an adage that continues to guide her.

“I’m not done climbing yet but I definitely want to help lift others,” she said. “It’s something that’s really stayed with me over the years because I really don’t know what would have happened if it wasn’t for the program.”

To learn more about how you can support the Latino Scholarship Program, visit their USF Foundation website.

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