Two classical piano students at Spokane Falls Community College each earned a $40,000 scholarship to the Whitworth University classical piano music program, and will start as juniors in the fall.
“I’ve never had one student get $40,000, let alone two!” said Rosi Guerrero, who has served as a tenured music faculty at SFCC for the past 21 years and heads the piano program.
The students, Zawng Lum and Danny Cordero, have each charted unconventional paths in pursuit of music.
Lum, 27, the son of a Baptist minister, is from Myanmar, a war-torn country in Southeast Asia, where Buddhism is the dominant religion.
“The village I grew up in was very remote – like a jungle,” he said.
At 13, he learned to play hymns on a five-octave keyboard. Soon he fell in love with jazz and moved to a larger city to study.
“There was lots of drug use in my village,” Lum said. “I didn’t think it would be a good place for me.”
Five years ago, he met two Whitworth alumni who were visiting Myanmar. They encouraged Lum to find a way to come to the United States to pursue his passion.
An uncle helped him get to Spokane where he enrolled at SFCC.
But last fall Lum’s financial situation grew grim. His uncle could no longer support him, and his father’s salary is just $300 a month. As an international student, he’s not allowed to work off campus. Desperate to stay in school and in the U.S., Lum restricted his food budget to $50 a month.
Guerrero enlisted the help of the CSS Scholarship Foundation and Lum was awarded the $4,000 CCS Touch the Future Scholarship and also received a SFCC Music Scholarship.
Shadle Park Presbyterian church offered to subsidize his housing.
Relieved, Lum once again focused on music.
While he’s still passionate about jazz, studying with Guerrero – or Dr. G as her students call her – opened up the world of classical music to him.
“I love Mozart and Chopin. So beautiful,” he said. “I don’t think I can live without music. I have to play every day or I don’t feel good. It feels like something’s missing if I’m not playing.”
Cordero, too, has found refuge in music.
“I had a tumultuous upbringing,” he said. “I was adopted at 6 and my life changed for the better.”
The Colville native discovered the piano shortly after his adoption.
“Music was the one constant thing in my life,” Cordero, 26, said. “I got laughed at for skipping football practice to go play the piano.”
Currently, Cordero serves as the worship director at Genesis Church in North Spokane, but until he came to SFCC, he couldn’t read sheet music.
“So, I played an original composition for Dr. G.,” he said.
“A little seed was planted two years ago,” she said. “Every day was a little step forward to something bigger. It’s not just about notes and a piano.”
Both students were nervous when they auditioned at Whitworth.
“It was comforting to know my friend Zawng would audition right after me,” said Cordero.
They were surprised and delighted to learn they’d both be attending the university next fall, thanks to the scholarships.
“We get to go on this journey together,” Cordero said.
For him, the scholarship reinforced his belief in the power of music.
“When I spent an hour or two playing at the STA Plaza, I saw how music takes the edge off and lets people connect,” he said. “It’s a language we can all share.”
And Lum would love to share that language in Myanmar.
“Eventually, I’d like to return to my country to teach music,” Lum said. “I love my people and I want to give back.”
Cordero also sees teaching as well as performing in his future.
It’s a future made brighter by friendship and the investment of the higher education music community.
“When Whitworth gives scholarships like these, it places value on music and the arts,” Guerrero said.
She smiled at her students.
“I see them soaring high, sharing their gifts and giving back.”
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