By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
High school students blazing the path for diversity were honored at the 17th annual Diversity Makes a Difference Scholarship Awards Gala on April 1.
The event was held at New Hong Kong Restaurant, where families and supporters gathered to celebrate the accomplishments of more than 60 student nominees.
Hosted by the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation, the Diversity Makes a Difference scholarship program celebrates young people who actively unite cultures in their local community. A judging panel selected five winners, four of whom received $1,000 scholarships. One received $1,200. Finalists received $200 scholarships.
Master of ceremonies Enrique Cerna, an award-winning news producer and reporter for KCTS, opened the evening by commenting on the nominees’ willingness to break down cultural barriers.
“This evening, we will celebrate young people committed to making a difference across cultural lines. Diversity enriches our community,” said Cerna. “The Foundation, through this program, encourages young people to take action to instill this belief in others.”
Following Cerna’s introduction, Dr. Jill Wakefield, chancellor of Seattle Community Colleges, took the stage as the gala’s keynote speaker.
With graduation around the corner for many of the nominees, Dr. Wakefield emphasized how students should take their time in exploring career aspirations and interests during college.
“Don’t have such great plans that you miss opportunities along the way,” said Dr. Wakefield.
“It’s good to be open about where life can take you … and to be aware of the opportunities that come.” She highlighted the importance of community college as a safe place for students to discover their passion before enrolling in four-year universities. Dr. Wakefield also dispensed advice about the college experience — about participating in extracurricular activities, about truth in the freshman 15 weight gain, and about having fun in school.
Assunta Ng, publisher of Northwest Asian Weekly and the Seattle Chinese Post, thanked the nominees for their contributions. She also urged students to not take their nominators — comprised of teachers from their respective schools — for granted. “Don’t forget to send your counselors and teachers thank you cards!” she urged, playfully.
Cerna then announced the names of the nominees present at the gala. The nominees walked up to the stage and posed for a group photo.
Winner Christina Mae Boettcher, a senior at Olympia High School, leads the Bear Crew at her school, a group that links incoming freshmen to older students who help them navigate through the trials of entering high school. She also founded Bear Crew II, by which students with special needs are paired with students in basic education to attend school activities.
Boettcher has provided specialized training for club members in using people-first language and promoting social interaction for students with disabilities. She has wanted to create a more inclusive school community.
Boettcher hopes to explore a career in special education. “I’m inspired by my sister who has Down syndrome and my mom’s work in special education,” said Boettcher. “You could say working in special education runs in my family.” She is waiting to hear back from several universities before she makes a decision about which one to attend.
Jonnathan Yepez-Carino, a senior at Mariner High School, advocated for the Latino Student Union at his school to help create awareness of the issues, struggles, and needs of Latino students in high school. He also engaged his fellow Latino schoolmates to get involved in after-school activities and to make high school a safer place for them. He spoke at the University of Washington about uniting Latinos in our region to create mentoring connections between students.
As a 1079 (undocumented) student, Yepez-Carino is not eligible to apply for financial aid from Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
“Because I can’t apply for FAFSA, winning this scholarship [from the Foundation] is really important to me,” said Yepez-Carino. “It’s going to give me money for school that I wouldn’t be able to get as easily as others.” His scholarship win will help him reach his dream to study psychology at either Seattle Pacific University or Edmonds Community College.
Yemesrach Demissie, a senior at Franklin High School, is a passionate dancer who has been involved with social justice clubs, such as gender club and HIV/AIDs awareness club. She shared her Ethiopian culture with students through her native Jinka cultural dance at multicultural nights at school. When accepting the award, she said she would like to become a dentist or pursue work as a humanitarian.
Mia Stroutsos, a senior at Roosevelt High School, is involved with the Youth Ambassador’s program at her school. She was selected to attend a diversity youth conference in Panama as one of two youth ambassadors from North America. She was selected by her peers to be a part of the Central Leadership Council at the conference.
She also participates in several local humanitarian programs and groups. When accepting her award, she said, “Cultural understanding is one of the most important tools that a student can have to be a youth ambassador.”
Suman Panwar, a senior at Squalicum High School, is the most fluent English speaker in her home. She has acted as an interpreter for her mother in various ways, such as translating at doctor appointments, attending parent-teacher conferences for her younger siblings, and even securing a job for her mother.
She volunteers with Squalicum’s Rotary Club, local food drives, and the United Diversity student group at her school. She also coordinates cultural awareness activities for Alderwood Elementary School and volunteers at the Sylvan Learning Center and Roosevelt Elementary School as a math tutor.
Panwar credited her success to her mother who was unable to attend the gala. Through tears of happiness, she said, “I want to give back to my mom because she struggled for so long to provide for my family. It’s the least I can do.” Panwar hopes to pursue a career in the medical field. Because of her outstanding commitment to her family and diversity, Panwar was awarded the $1,200 scholarship.
The four finalists were Alfonso Bustos of Mariner High School, Han Cao of Sehome High School, Seung Jae (Sarah) Hyun of Sehome High School, and Raveena Sajjan of Squalicum High School. Each finalist won a $200 scholarship, gifts, books, and a certificate of merit from the Foundation. ♦
For more information, visit diversity.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org.
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.