By NANCY WACLAWEK
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- Their counselors describe them as determined, independent, self-motivated, driven.
Their life stories show how their resolve was formed: dealing with the serious injury or death of loved ones, adapting to new cities and new schools because of family moves, and struggling with limited family finances.
Yet the four winners of 2001 St. Petersburg Times Scholarships have used their life experiences as motivation to succeed rather than as reasons to fail.
They are Ronda Green of Tampa Bay Technical High School in Tampa, Jaime Rios of Bloomingdale High School in Brandon, Heidi Rochester of St. Petersburg High School in St. Petersburg and Magdalena Stolarczyk of Hudson High School in Hudson.
Each will receive up to $60,000 toward college expenses over the next four years. Established in 1999, the St. Petersburg Times Scholarships are funded through the St. Petersburg Times Scholarship Fund, which has assisted students since 1953.
These awards target high school seniors with academic promise who have overcome significant obstacles in their lives and who demonstrate financial need.
The 10 other finalists will receive onetime scholarships of $1,000.
The winners were selected from a field of 258 applicants from the Times' five-county circulation area.
"These young people are inspiring," said Andrew Barnes, chairman and chief executive officer of Times Publishing Co. "I am sure they will make excellent use of their opportunities. I only wish we had more scholarships to give."
Ronda Green's family has had to roll with some tough punches. Her father, who is paralyzed from the waist down, lives in a Brandon nursing home. Her mother supports Ms. Green and her 15-year-old brother on her salary as a branch manager trainee for a loan company. She and Ms. Green also help care for the toddlers of Ms. Green's older sister.
"My high school career amazingly hasn't been severely affected by these happenings," she wrote. "I feel that, had none of this ever happened, I wouldn't be the strong person that I am today."
She has a 3.49 grade point average and ranks 15th in her class of 113 in the Health Academy at Tampa Bay Tech. She has volunteered at her father's nursing home for five years, has tutored students at Lewis Elementary School and is a member of the National Honor Society, the Mayor's Youth Advisory Group and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Student Advisory Board.
She has applied to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and to Salem College in Winston-Salem, N.C. She wants to be a lawyer.
For Jaime Rios, the "first major obstacle to cross my path was the death of my best friend, my godfather, my uncle, Jose Luis Rios. I remember . . . when saying my final goodbye, making a promise to myself that I would never give up on my dream of becoming a doctor."
He grew up in Texas, near extended family. But his mother remarried when he was in ninth grade, and they moved to Springfield, Va., beginning what Rios called "the worst year of my life." He was far from home, family and a JROTC program he had grown to love. He was heartbroken, but he adapted.
"I learned how to excel at things that I had never done before. I learned . . . that I could be and do anything that I put my mind to and worked hard to achieve."
The next year, Rios' family moved to Tampa. "My junior year was unforgettable. I gained the respect and friendship of the students and faculty and made a positive difference in my school and community."
Rios has a 3.8 grade point average and ranks 28th in his class of 484. He has volunteered at Habitat for Humanity, Shriners Children's Hospital, Good Samaritan Mission and the Special Olympics. He is on the Bloomingdale math team, an officer in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, president of the Interact Club and a member of the School Improvement Team.
Rios will attend Rice University in Houston, majoring in biology and Spanish. His aim: to be a doctor.
Heidi Rochester describes her mother as the "awesome miracle" in her life. Ms. Rochester's parents divorced when she was 5. Her mother, a nurse, moved the family from Colorado to Florida so that her extended family could help care for Heidi and an older sister while she worked.
"At one point, my sister and I helped in raising each other," Ms. Rochester wrote. "We made dinner and cleaned house to make our contribution to our little family."
Ms. Rochester's career goal is to be a pediatrician so she can help others. "This desire to help people has originated from my family. The giving nature of my mother has been graciously passed to me. Her intelligence has, too."
Ms. Rochester ranks in the top 2 percent of the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High School, with a 3.79 grade point average. She belongs to the National Honor Society, the Keyette Service Club and the Powder Puff flag football team. She has been a volunteer at Lowry Park Zoo and at St. Anthony's Hospital and works 25 hours a week as a teaching assistant for two home-schooled girls, ages 4 and 7.
She has applied to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Magdalena Stolarczyk was born in Communist-controlled Poland. Her father was a freelance journalist and a frequent government critic, so the family escaped to Berlin and later immigrated to America.
The family moved frequently as her father struggled to support them. Her mother was diagnosed with leukemia when Ms. Stolarczyk was 7 and died three years later. Her father remarried; he and his wife have a son, age 6.
In middle school, Ms. Stolarczyk discovered music and the violin. "Playing the violin has become a passion beyond words for me," she wrote. "I cannot imagine myself not playing the violin and being the same person."
She ranks fourth in her class of 256 at Hudson High School and has a 4.3 grade point average. She has run track and cross country, is editor in chief of her high school yearbook and works 25 hours a week as an optometric technician. She also takes private violin lessons and plays with the Hernando Symphony Orchestra.
She has applied to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, planning to study architecture and languages.
Each year, four students from the Tampa Bay area will be chosen as scholarship winners. Applications will be available in the fall in school guidance offices, some community centers, by mail from the Times' Director of Development and on the Times' Web site (www.sptimes.com/scholarship).
This year's winners and finalists will be honored at a luncheon April 19 at the Sunset Ballroom of the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club in St. Petersburg. Guest speaker will be Thomas Wilkins, resident conductor of the Florida Orchestra.
The other 10 scholarship recipients are Shannon Clay of Glenhaven Academy, Spring Hill; Mary Cseh of Central High School, Spring Hill; Jillian DeNisco of Crystal River High School; Khoa Do of Hillsborough High School, Tampa; Chad Gordon of Blake High School, Tampa; Heather Henderson of Sickles High School, Tampa; Jerry Hunt of Largo High School; Dorothy Jackson of Robinson High School, Tampa; Amanda O'Sullivan of Clearwater High School, and Khanh Vo of Jefferson High School, Tampa.