Dora De La Cruz-Martinez is a St. Ambrose University freshman from West Liberty, Iowa.
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By Jonathan Turner, OurQuadCities.com 

Dora De La Cruz-Martinez is thrilled to be the first person in her family to attend college, and just one of 25 nationwide recipients of a $10,000 Bridging the Dream Scholarship for High School Seniors.

The St. Ambrose University freshman from West Liberty, Iowa, earned the honor (out of over 1,000 applicants) from Sallie Mae in partnership with Thurgood Marshall College Fund. De La Cruz-Martinez is majoring in political science, and minoring in pre-law.

After submitting a two-minute video application as a high school senior, she was chosen based on her academic performance and upstanding moral character, both in her academic and personal life, according to the scholarship.

Dora chose St. Ambrose over the University of Iowa, partly because it’s smaller and has a great academic reputation.

“It’s the best decision I’ve ever made, honestly,” she said Thursday. “Going to a smaller school is what I needed, and I really appreciate all my professors.”

Her mother (who is widowed) immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with her family when she was 3, and didn’t go to college. Dora has a brother two years younger.

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“She’s been taking care of us for the longest time,” she said of her mom, who became a citizen in her 20s.

Dora said it means a lot to be a first-generation college student.

“I’ve been working really hard and I just want to prove to myself and to them, I don’t want to keep the chain of living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “I don’t mean to say you need a college education to get a good job, but for me, that is the case.”

Dora’s mom works in a natural foods supply warehouse in Iowa City. The freshman plans to go to law school.

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“I love my political science professors,” Dora said. “I feel like they’re really passionate about what they teach and just know so much about what they teach. That makes it easier for me. They really talk you through everything.”

At SAU, she’s getting involved with the Latino Unidos club.

$3-million investment

The $250,000 in new scholarships for the 25 students is part of a $3-million commitment over three years by The Sallie Mae Fund, the charitable arm of Sallie Mae, to help students from underserved communities on their journey to access and complete higher education.

Dora and the other winners will be highlighted on Sallie Mae’s Twitter and LinkedIn channels throughout November in celebration of National Scholarship Month.

The scholarship, in partnership with Thurgood Marshall College Fund, provides 25 deserving students from historically underserved communities with $10,000 each to help them access higher education.

“Scholarships can be a real difference maker in opening the doors of higher education, particularly to low-income, under-resourced, and underrepresented students, who often need the most support,” said Nic Jafarieh, executive vice president, Sallie Mae. “Our scholarship program and partnership with Thurgood Marshall College Fund continues to help level the playing field for those too often left out or left behind. This year’s diverse recipients are impressive and well on their way to accomplishing great things.”

“Our partnership with The Sallie Mae Fund means we can reach more students in need and those who may have thought higher education was out of reach,” said Harry L. Williams, president and CEO, Thurgood Marshall College Fund. “These scholarships can change the lives of students and ensure they have the opportunity to pursue higher education and build successful college careers.”

The importance of education

Dora found out about winning the scholarship in July, while she was on vacation with her family in Mexico.

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“It feels amazing and I feel fortunate,” she said. “I know it could have gone to anyone and I’m really happy that it went to me.”

“I think it was because I talked about what higher education meant to me, and that higher education would get me out of the cycle of living paycheck to paycheck,” Dora said. “They really saw I had the intention of getting higher education.”

She worked as a bank teller part-time and full-time this past year. She finished her course credits and tests (including AP Spanish and AP psychology) for graduation in May.

While scholarships can be a helpful resource in making college more accessible and affordable, many families are unaware about their availability and what it takes to qualify. Recent research from Sallie Mae and Ipsos found nearly half of families think scholarships are only offered for academic or athletic excellence leading them to bypass applying altogether.

Scholarships, however, are available for just about any and every interest and free tools like Sallie Mae’s Scholarship Search — home to more than 6 million scholarships collectively worth $30 billion – can help families research and apply.

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