Applying paychecks to college, student lands internship and scholarships to university

05.09.2014 | By Jeannie Peng-Armao

Dreams really do come true, especially for Fernando Zuniga, a 21-year-old who has paid his way through college with Sears paychecks, while maintaining a 4.0.

Such persistence has finally paid off with an upcoming San Jacinto College graduation, scholarships to the University of Houston in the Fall to study mechanical engineering, and a summer internship at Rice University to study biomedical engineering.

"I came from a family who did not go to college," said Zuniga. "Because my dad is a mechanic, I enjoyed building things, but I wanted to take it to the next level and make my parents proud.”

The road hasn't been easy. First, Zuniga would need some guidance, starting with reading. “I’ve always been good at math, but English was a challenge because I was born in Mexico and moved here when I was younger,” said Zuniga. “I had to complete college prep reading, and that is where my professor, Carolyn Poole, taught me not to say 'try' but to say 'I will do'."

Zuniga's new motto stayed with him throughout his academic courses and achievements. Attending San Jacinto College as part-time student during his first year, he was able to add more classes and attend full time after receiving several scholarships that included the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) scholarship, the Texas Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (T-STEM) scholarship, and a San Jacinto College Foundation scholarship.

"The really hard class was physics, because I forgot everything from high school," said Zuniga. "Prof. Oommen George challenged me to earn my A through lab work and homework. I spent about 40 hours a week preparing for the final and ended up getting a 98. My first chemistry professor, Dr. Dolores Aquino, really guided me because I had forgotten everything I learned in high school chemistry."

Dr. Ann Cartwright, physical science department chair and co-chair of the STEM Council, served as Zuniga's mentor, as well as chemistry professor. The two often met to discuss scholarship opportunities, grades, and universities.

"I have taught chemistry for 35 years, and Fernando stands out," said Cartwright. "He knows how to study. On the first test this semester, he obtained one of the highest grades, and I had him tell the class how he studied for the test. To start, he goes through every homework problem at least three times. He just knows about the hard work to get to where he wants to go."

Besides maintaining a high grade point average, Zuniga also has picked up career-building skills to include a summer robotics internship, part of the LSAMP scholarship program; joining Phi Theta Kappa; and becoming treasurer of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars student chapter. He has participated in some of the science department's service learning projects, including demonstrating science experiments to elementary school students. Zuniga follows in the footsteps of several San Jacinto College students, including his friend, Daniel Rodriguez. Rodriguez did not finish his high school education, yet was able to move from college prep courses and excel within the science and math departments, which resulted in numerous scholarships, a Rice University internship last summer, and acceptance into the University of Houston College of Engineering.

"Fernando appreciates the educational experience," said Cartwright. "Getting an education is developmental, and we work as a team for the student, from the academics to those real-life interview skills and professionalism. Fernando is proof that the community college practice of knowing our students and knowing their challenges works.”
About San Jacinto College

Surrounded by monuments of history, industries and maritime enterprises of today, and the space age of tomorrow, San Jacinto College has been serving the citizens of East Harris County, Texas, for more than 50 years. The Achieving the Dream Leader College is committed to the goals and aspirations of a diverse population of 30,000 students in more than 200 degree and certificate options, including university transfer and career preparation. Students also benefit from the College’s job training programs, renowned for meeting the needs of growing industries in the region. San Jacinto College graduates contribute nearly $630 million each year to the Texas workforce. San Jacinto College. Your Goals. Your College.

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