A week ago, Maria Daniela Thurber, wasn’t sure she would be able to continue her education after her May 4 graduation from St. Petersburg College. Even with a 3.97 grade point average and a long list of honors, the reality of the cost of a university education was beginning to sink in.
“Education is so expensive,” said Thurber, who’d been dually enrolled at SPC while completing high school. “I had to sit myself down and say ‘you may not be able to do this right now.’”
A few days later, she got a package in the mail. She only got as far as the word congratulations before she knew her dreams had come true. The letter stated that she had received the coveted Gates Millennium Scholarship, giving her a full-ride, good-through-graduation scholarship at the college of her choice.
“I just started jumping up and down and crying,” said Thurber. “My mom and dad were there with me. My mom’s prayers have been answered. She has been praying so much because we can’t afford it. She is over the moon with this.”
Aimed at helping minority students with financial needs for college funding, the program also provides academic support, leadership training and professional development for the 1,000 students chosen nationwide each year.
“This scholarship will pay for her education costs through PhD studies,” said SPC President Bill Law. “In my 25 years of experience as a president, I’ve never encountered such a bountiful award.”
While initially funding undergraduate studies, the renewable program also provides graduate school funding for scholars like Thurber to pursue advanced degrees in fields like education.
The Gates Millennium Scholars Program is one of 400 scholarships administered by the United Negro College Fund. UNCF partners with the American Indian Graduate Center Scholars, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund to select and provide service to Gates Millennium Scholars.
This fall, Thurber, 17, and her parents will move to Washington, D.C. where she will attend Catholic University of America to pursue dual bachelors’ degrees in education and political science with international relations. She also plans to pursue a PhD.
“International diplomacy has always been a passion of mine,” said Thurber. “Working for the Department of Education is my dream.”
A St. Petersburg/Gibbs Campus student, Thurber graduates from SPC May 4 with an Associate in Arts degree where she will also be honored as a finalist for this year’s Apollo Award. Earlier this year, she was named a 2013 Coca-Cola New Century Bronze Scholar and received a $1,000 scholarship from the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation.
While studying at St. Petersburg College, Thurber served as:
- Student Coordinator and presenter at the Honors College annual research conference
- Vice President of Leadership for Phi Theta Kappa
- Member of Student Government
- Member of the Hispanic Leadership Council
- Member of SPC’s Model United Nations Team
“I’ve been very involved at SPC,” said Thurber. “It has given me the perspective that I can do this – I can achieve my dreams and succeed.”
One of her proudest accomplishments this year was the development of the Gabe Cazares Scholarship, named after Clearwater’s first Hispanic mayor.
“I never thought I could do something like that,” she said. “I live in a community with a large Hispanic population and I brought my concerns to SPC. They gave me their feedback and now we have a $20,000 endowment.”
A native of Guayaquil, Ecuador, Thurber moved with her family to St. Petersburg at age 9.
“My motivation for trying my hardest to do well in school is my dad,” said Thurber. Her U.S. Air Force veteran father did not graduate from high school and later obtained his GED. “My parents really are my inspiration, and I want to be one of the first in my family to obtain a higher education.”
While Thurber has been a shining star at SPC, her path has not been without challenges. A few years ago, she began to have back problems that required intense physical therapy. Her mom drove her to school and back every day because riding the bus was too difficult.
“We have all had to make a lot of sacrifices so I could continue to go to SPC,” she said. “It has been a real family effort with my education for the past two years.”
In addition to being fluent in Spanish and English, Thurber studied French at SPC and volunteered as a peer tutor in the Learning Support Commons on her campus.
“I have received so much from SPC that I just want to keep giving back,” she said. “I feel like it is my duty.”
Long after all the service learning projects and volunteer hours were completed — Thurber keeps on giving. She continues to work at the Ronald McDonald House where she has cleaned rooms for the families of critically ill children for the past two years. She plans to spend her summer volunteering on campus at the library and training next year’s Phi Theta Kappa and Student Government leaders.
“I spend more hours at SPC every day than I do at home,” she said jokingly. “I’ll just keep volunteering if they let me.”
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