At a celebratory dinner Friday evening, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera encouraged college-bound children of undocumented immigrants to take advantage of their education.
“A lot of people tell you, ‘No, you can’t,’ ” Rivera said to the scholars. “I’m here to tell you, ‘Yes, you can.’ ”
The dinner served as the kick-off for a weekend of events to honor the 2014 Golden Door scholars. Since starting in 2012, the program has given college scholarships to undocumented students and this year welcomes its biggest class yet – with 18 scholars selected from hundreds of applicants.
As the evening’s keynote speaker, Rivera stressed the importance of receiving an education and making the best of every opportunity, despite any obstacles.
“Each and every one of you young folks has an opportunity before you,” Rivera said. “Not all of the opportunities are simple, not all of the opportunities are easy. But what you make of them is up to you.”
Golden Door Scholars was started by Ric Elias, the CEO and co-founder of Internet marketing firm Red Ventures. Friday’s celebration was at Red Ventures’ headquarters in Fort Mill, S.C.
Undocumented students are ineligible for most college financial aid programs and are required to pay out-of-state tuition rates. Elias has provided more than $1 million to fund the scholarships, with private donors contributing to the program as well.
“It’s opened up a big door for us to be able to actually continue our education,” said scholarship recipient Ana Rodriguez, who will attend Elon University beginning in the fall. “It’s really changed our lives.”
The winners of the scholarship shared their goals with the audience, with dream careers ranging from aerospace engineer to congressman. Most of the students will be attending top colleges in the Carolinas, though some are venturing farther away to enroll at universities such as Yale and Swarthmore.
Rivera focused on providing words of wisdom to the scholars instead of discussing the politics of immigration. He noted the importance of education in his life, as well as the power of setting goals and making specific plans to achieve them.
For many of the evening’s honorees, the scholarship is the first step to achieving their own goals.
“I’ve always believed in not losing hope,” said Vanessa Cupil-Garcia, who will be a sophomore at Meredith College in the fall and received the scholarship after struggling to fund her freshman year. “This was the prayer I was looking for.”