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Young Achievers: Meet winners of La Noticia's Student of the Year awards

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La Noticia, Charlotte’s main Spanish-language newspaper, awarded Student of the Year awards to six college students as part of its annual Latin American Excelente Awards Gala in October.

Five applied for the award – which includes a $2,500 scholarship – when they were seniors in high school. Students had to have a minimum 3.5 GPA to enter and submitted a cover letter, resume, essays, transcripts and two letters of recommendation for consideration.

“They are wonderful, wonderful people,” said Hilda Gurdian, publisher of La Noticia. “These are people who work very hard and made sacrifices to be where they are.”

Below are highlights of this year’s award-winners.

Natalia Barriga

Natalia began her second year at UNC Charlotte this fall in the Belk College of Business. She earned a 3.8 GPA last year and expects to graduate in 2016.

She graduated from Ardrey Kell High, where she was active in track and cheerleading. Natalia now does cheerleading at UNC Charlotte, and her team won second place in a national competition last year.

Natalia was born in Colombia and moved to the United States when she was 4.

“After growing up in the United States for several years now, I have realized just how great this country is,” she wrote. “I have been able to pursue many dreams and have been given endless opportunities that just aren’t possible in other countries.”

Natalia said she’s proud of overcoming the challenge of not understanding English as a young student, and more recently, getting on the Chancellor’s List in her first semester at UNC Charlotte.

At Belk College of Business, Natalia will major in business marketing or international business.

She said she has learned the importance of time-management since starting college and how to balance her priorities. “I do not give anything less than 100 percent,” she wrote.

Allison Mendiola

Allison spent the first half of her life in Queens, N.Y., with her Peruvian family, then moved to Charlotte in 2004.

Two years later, she joined the dance group Contigo Peru to learn folk dances, and later joined El Alma de la Luna for modern Latin dance. In high school, she volunteered at places such as Presbyterian Hospital and vacation Bible school.

Allison has consistently been a strong student, took Advanced Placement classes and graduated from South Mecklenburg High in June with a 3.5 GPA. She began at East Carolina University this fall for biomedical engineering.

She said she is interested in medicine because she wants to make her parents proud, and she finds motivation in helping others because her mother died from cancer last year.

Keeping her grades up was difficult last year, Allison wrote, because she and her sister had to add cooking, cleaning and laundry to their everyday tasks to help their father.

But Allison said a college education is important.

“Since I have Latina blood, I want to prove that a minority can be someone big in this country,” she wrote. “I also want to prove that a woman can do as much of a good job as a man can in the engineering field.”

Valery Ortiz

At South Mecklenburg High, Valery decided to “challenge stereotypes” by joining Junior ROTC and taking automotive technical classes.

She started her freshman year at Wingate University this fall after graduating with a 4.3 GPA.

Valery moved to Charlotte from Colombia when she was 10, and said it was difficult, at first, to fit in with her classmates. After learning English in 21/2 years, she soon began taking honors classes.

In addition to maintaining fluency in Spanish and English, Valery took four years of French in high school. She was her unit’s community service officer for South Mecklenburg’s Navy Junior ROTC program.

She is studying pre-law and wants to do something that makes a difference for others. Valery also said she will not forget her values of humility and honesty.

“I believe I represent a large number of people who have fought for and achieved their dreams. I am a dreamer,” she wrote. “I have known family separation, the challenge of assimilating into a new culture, and the fight to become a legal resident of the United States.”

Alma Páez

Alma was born in Los Angeles to Mexican parents and moved to Charlotte when she was an infant.

She learned English in a year when she began school, and excelled. As the oldest of three, Alma oversaw her siblings’ homework because her parents don’t speak English. After years of helping her siblings, she became inspired to teach and is now a freshman education major at Appalachian State University.

“I want to help improve the education of many kids,” she wrote. “They are our future and it’s important to keep their minds open to big, great, and positive things.”

Alma graduated from Harding University High with a 4.2 GPA and won several awards, including the AVID Excellence Award and Outstanding Cadet Award.

In high school, Alma participated in the Leadership Club, Book Study Club, National Honor Society, Junior ROTC and was assistant secretary in student government.

She volunteered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, the Love Laugh Live Foundation and Communities in Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Alma wants to be a second-grade teacher and later study psychology.

Daniel Salgado

Daniel said he grew up loving math and science and knew early on that was what he wanted to do.

He is a freshman at UNC Charlotte, studying mechanical engineering. Daniel would like to earn his master’s in a specialized branch of engineering, then work “designing and aiding in countries less fortunate.”

To save for college, Daniel worked two jobs in high school, he said, because “my parents believe that if they could earn enough money for themselves growing up, then I should be able to do the same, especially in this country, the land of opportunity.”

He was born in Colombia and moved to the United States when he was 2.

But balancing jobs, school and his love of soccer was tough. His junior year, he woke up early to get extra help at school before classes started. He played varsity soccer and helped his team win second place in conference competitions.

Daniel graduated from Ardrey Kell High this spring with a 4.4 GPA and with 21 hours of college credits.

He’s hopeful for the future: “I want to change people’s lives for the better, and I truly believe that if I work hard enough, I’ll be able to do exactly that and more.”

Kathia Selena Toledo

Growing up, Kathia said, she had to overcome the challenge of learning English, and obesity. She is now a freshman at UNC Chapel Hill.

Kathia was born in Columbia, Md., but spent most of her early childhood in Guanajuato, Mexico. At 7, she returned to Charlotte, where she missed Mexican customs and began gaining weight while she watched a lot of television.

Kathia learned English in 21/2 years and won the “Most Improved” award in her English as a Second Language class.

Then she had to tackle her weight. Kathia found success with the “Hispanos Saludables” (Healthy Hispanics) program, which helped her regain her health.

At Independence High School, she was part of the Academy of International Studies, played soccer and was a member of the Diversity Club, Leo Club and student council. Kathia volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and Stop Hunger Now.

Kathia took AP and online college courses and graduated from Independence in the top 10 percent of her class with a 4.4 GPA.

She wants to study international and environmental studies. “My definition of success,” she wrote, “is being able to have a positive impact in the world, and environment around us.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294; Twitter: @lruebens
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