When Katalina Colon receives her diploma from Rogers High School this spring, she will embark on a journey no one in her family has yet taken – she’s off to college.
And not only that, this 17-year-old will be attending the University of Washington on a Gates Millennium Scholarship, a full-ride scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that rewards low-income, minority students with good academic credentials and leadership abilities.
“Katalina is just the kind of student this prestigious scholarship is meant for,” said Nancy Pemberton, career specialist at Rogers. “She fought hard for it and truly deserves it.”
“It (the application process) was long and stressful,” Colon said. “I’m not one to talk about myself much, so some of the essays were a real challenge.”
Born in the Bronx, N.Y., she has had many challenges in her life. In 1997, she came across the country by train with her mother Rafaela “Tana” Colon, her three older brothers, an aunt and three cousins. After hearing about Spokane from a family member, Colon’s mother packed up the family and moved them here, sight unseen.
“She wanted a new life for us,” Colon said. “She wanted a better place to raise her children.”
Her mother worked in a nursing home while Colon and her siblings adjusted to their new life far from their close-knit Puerto Rican family in New York. Colon did well in school, especially in math, her favorite subject. “It’s easy for me, which is probably why I like it,” she said.
And at Rogers, she plays volleyball in the fall and tennis in the spring. She is active in National Honor Society (she has a 3.93 grade point average) and in a number of service activities.
But it hasn’t exactly been a storybook tale for the family in Spokane. Colon’s mother developed ovarian cancer and after recovering from that came down with a degenerative disease of her spine. She can no longer work.
Colon stepped up to take care of many things at home, a fact she just shrugs off. “The women in my family are headstrong and do things for themselves,” she said. “My mom is in pain all day, and I don’t like that. There’s nothing I can do for her and that hurts the most.”
Even though the family doesn’t have a lot of material things, Colon especially enjoys doing things for other people. “I’m like my mom that way,” she said. “I’m a caregiver. I love to help people.”
She has raised money for the Union Gospel Mission and the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery and recalls one particular fundraising drive last year in which she and other Rogers students were out in the community on a service project.
“There was an old man who came by in old and smelly clothes, obviously homeless,” she said. “I didn’t approach him for a donation. But he came over to us, dug into his pockets and gave us what change he had. He smiled and didn’t say anything.
“That really touched me. Here this man didn’t have anything but his life and maybe his shoes, but he gave all he had to people he didn’t know. That really opened my eyes about what I can give.”
So she plans to continue giving of herself, but is quick to deflect credit to the people she works with. Even in tennis, she plays doubles. “I don’t like singles,” she said matter-of-factly. “I like working with others.”
She hopes eventually to work in the medical field and even envisions attending medical school – all of which can happen now due to the Millennium Scholarship and her own intelligence, drive and compassion.
When she leaves Spokane for the UW this fall, it will be her first time in Seattle.
But that’s not surprising. There is a family tradition of heading out to unseen, unknown places to make a better life.