by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Jamie Conejo was raised to believe that he could achieve anything he set his mind to.
Now, 16-year-old Conejo is one of 17 Bishop Ward High School juniors recently awarded a KC Scholars college scholarship.
This year’s recipients represent a record number of winners for the Kansas City, Kansas, Catholic high school. Conejo, the son of Joe and Jennifer Conejo, has big plans for his future.
“While I’m not the first in my family to attend college, I do plan on being the first person to go all the way through,” Conejo said. “I plan on doing a pre-med track and hopefully making my way to med school where I want to study to be an orthopedic surgeon.”
Making college accessible
KC Scholars provides college scholarships for low- and modest-income students across a six-county area of the Kansas City region.
The awards provide financial assistance, college advisory resources and college planning for students who have the greatest need and who may otherwise be unable to complete a postsecondary degree. Eligible students must be high school juniors, have a minimum GPA of 2.5 and meet an income qualifier.
This year, students from 95 public, private, public charter and home-based high schools applied for a scholarship. Winners receive up to $10,000 annually for up to five years. Scholarships must be used at one of 17 local higher education institutions within the Kansas City region.
Approximately 80% of recipients who complete a postsecondary program stay in the Kansas City region to live, work and contribute.
By all accounts, Bishop Ward students and staff credit the school’s academic dean Emily Saatcioglu, PhD, with driving submissions and successes.
Saatcioglu discovered the scholarship several years ago. But instead of simply posting a flyer, she engaged the entire staff in providing one-on-one mentoring to each student willing to apply.
“When I came to Bishop Ward, I realized that so many of our students qualified to apply,” Saatcioglu said. “But I learned that it’s not enough to have the scholarship information. You really have to have someone walk with you along the way.”
Saatcioglu’s model has been a huge success. The first academic school year for the mentoring program, 2018-19, Bishop Ward recorded six winners. During the 2019-20 school year, the number of winners nearly tripled to 17.
Mentors make the difference
Kathy Calcara, a grant writer for Bishop Ward, served as one of the staff mentors. She was matched with Lisbeth Martinez, who also won a scholarship. Beyond the satisfaction Calcara felt in helping Martinez, she was elated to engage with the students.
“I was really happy to be selected as a mentor because I don’t have a lot of interaction with the students as a grant writer,” Calcara said. “So, this was a great experience for me and makes me better at my job when I get to know the students.
“Lisbeth was a model student during the process. She took it seriously and gave it her best effort.”
Calcara said the essay portion of the scholarship application is typically the most challenging for students. However, she felt her grant writing experience helped Martinez.
“Her first draft brought me to tears. It was as raw and emotional as you can get,” Calcara said. “I handed it to my 13-year-old daughter to read and she cried!”
According to Calcara, Martinez’s moving essay captured the essence of her parents’ sacrifice, as well as the gratitude and respect she feels for them.
Calling her parents “heroes,” Martinez wrote: “Even heroes need help sometimes.”
That pride, of course, is felt by the parents of the scholarship winners, as well. Lisa Vasquez’s 17-year-old son Johnny also won a scholarship.
Having grown up in a single-parent household for most of his life, Johnny’s scholarship was designated for use at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Lisa works two jobs to support her family. A few years ago, one of her jobs involved rising at 4 a.m., five days a week, to make and sell burritos and tamales at the railroad.
“When he told me he won, I cried,” Lisa said. “I told him all his hard work finally paid off!”
“I am so thankful to God for this opportunity,” she continued. “[Johnny] has always wanted to go to college and I told him I’d work 20 jobs if I had to!”
It’s not surprising Bishop Ward’s student applicants put their heart and soul into their submissions, Saatcioglu said. While the socioeconomic makeup of the school represents low to modest incomes, Saatcioglu said that doesn’t diminish the talent within that income group and its ability to compete and succeed in college.
“Economic disparity makes a college education even more of a reach,” she said. “It’s almost as if the students want it as much for their families as for themselves, especially after watching their parents struggle for so long.”