Much has been said about persistence and determination: From President Calvin Coolidge, “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence” to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “Never give in!” Famed physicist Marie Curie, “We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves” to baseball legend Babe Ruth, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”
For Berenice Figueroa, 22, a St. Vincent de Paul One at a Time (OAAT) Program scholar: “No matter the challenges to attain a higher education, I want to help people. I know it’s going to take an abundance of hard work and dedication, but it will be achievable.”
Berenice is one giant leap closer to achieving her goals, having graduated this December from Arizona State University with a bachelor of science degree in community health. She completed the four-year program a semester early, but the road to graduation day hasn’t always been easy.
When Berenice applied for the OAAT Scholarship (one of about 15 other scholarships for financial assistance for which she also applied), she was a senior at Metro Tech High School with an interest in nursing and just three months shy from graduating. A counselor at Metro Tech had suggested to Figueroa that she would be a great candidate for the program; she didn’t waste any time looking over the application process and submitting her personal statement and essay. Within a couple weeks, she was contacted for an interview.
“I was really nervous going in (for the interview),” Berenice remembers. “I wanted to have a conversation with them and show them I’m someone that wants to make a difference.”
After the interview, she grew anxious awaiting the results of the decision by mail.
“When my counselor told me I got the scholarship, I was relieved and feeling so fortunate that they gave me the opportunity,” she said.
Growing up with her dad in construction and seeing firsthand the aches and pains that come with physical labor, Berenice began to seriously consider a career in healthcare when she was 13.
“I wanted to make my dad more comfortable with the pain he was experiencing in his legs and started gravitating to the healthcare field,” she said.
“My brother was attending Metro Tech and when he mentioned all the career programs, it was the nursing program that pulled me in. Then when I was a sophomore at Metro Tech, exploring and choosing a career of interest, nursing became my top priority.”
And so, Berenice started ASU with the goal of applying for the nursing program. “It’s a very competitive program,” she acknowledges. “I took all the prerequisites and took classes during the summer to apply for the nursing school sophomore year.”
When she wasn’t accepted into the program, she continued to set great expectations for herself, according to Lois Rogers, the SVdP volunteer mentor paired with Berenice as part of the OAAT Program.
“Despite roadblocks that have come up along the way, Berenice is self-motivated with a strength that comes from within,” said Lois, who has mentored Berenice throughout her academic journey at ASU. All the while, the two have become close friends.
“I have seen this incredible growth in Berenice,” Lois said. “She is a quick learner and when something is put in front of her, she realizes it’s her responsibility to be her own advocate and seize opportunities and ask for help.”
“Help” for Berenice has come in the form of the many bonds she has formed with members of the SVdP and ASU team that have made achieving her goal of higher education possible.
“The relationship I built with my mentor Lois — and everyone involved in the program — was the most valuable outcome from my college journey,” Berenice said. “Lois is amazing. She provided me with inspiration, hope, motivation and supported me with all the decisions I had to make. She’s grown close with my family, and I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t met her.
“It’s an amazing and beautiful thing to have met people with a similar desire to want to help others do something better for themselves. My St. Vincent de Paul-ASU team was there for me, always a reminder of why I was going to school and the better future I was creating for myself and my family years down the road.”
In addition to Lois, the “dream team” Berenice wants to thank comprises Erica Hodges, ASU and SVdP program manager; Marcelino Quiñonez, director of Educational Outreach and Partnerships at ASU; and Andy Romley, St. Vincent de Paul development officer.
“Erica, Marcelino and Andy are wonderful people and really understand the struggles of first-generation students trying to achieve higher education,” Berenice said. They understand how to help students put resources in place so we’re not going down this road alone.”
Berenice is also grateful for the support of her loving family, adding a special message for them:
“A family is those who provide you their unconditional love and show it through their actions. They support you in your dreams, reminding you of your purpose. They inspire you by sharing their life experiences in hopes of you doing better. They cheer you on in every goal that is accomplished. I am proud to know this is my family.”
“Una familia son aquellos que te brindan su amor incondicional y lo demuestran a través de sus acciones. Te apoyan en tus sueños, recordándote de tu propósito. Te inspiran al compartir sus experiencias de la vida, con la esperanza de que te vaya mejor. Te animan en cada objetivo que se logra. Estoy orgullosa de saber que esta es mi familia.”
Upon graduation, Berenice plans to spend a year gaining varied work experience in the healthcare field — occupation flexibility her community health degree affords her — before reapplying for nursing school.
Whether a hospital, clinic or doctor’s office setting, Berenice has been researching an array of open positions. For any opportunity she seeks, she can also apply the “amazing experience” she gained while volunteering in SVdP’s Center for Family Wellness this summer. Working alongside the center’s Registered Dietitians, Berenice says her experience at the center opened her eyes to the comprehensive field of community health.
“Promoting a healthy lifestyle to low income communities — people that have diabetes or a predisposition is just one example — brought the impact and importance of community health into perspective,” she said.
But first, a graduation celebration.
In the pandemic environment, Berenice and Lois are planning a get together to celebrate safely. According to Lois, “Berenice’s graduation will surely be celebrated at a distance, and when it’s safe to gather in Arizona, we’ll certainly have a party with her family and friends.”
Lois also notes, “We still have a couple years ahead of us after she graduates. I’ll be here to encourage her to apply to nursing programs and help any way I can, even if for moral support. She has all the requirements she needs.”
Congrats, Berenice! The SVdP family is so proud of you and can't wait to see how your healthcare career takes off.