Univision scholarship winner freshman Stephanie Perez has come a long way — and yet she’s just beginning.

She speaks of past hardships with a quiet resilience. Her words of wisdom often belie her age. “Life can be a struggle and through these struggles, we learn and grow as a person,” says Stephanie, a biology and psychology double major.

Struggle came at the age of 14. When fibromyalgia and chronic depression incapacitated her mother, Stephanie became her caretaker and the head of the family – all while continuing to get top grades at her Miami, Fla. high school.

She emerged an epitome of strength, determined to succeed, not only for herself, but so that she could serve others facing their own challenges. “I realized when I was taking care of my mother that I loved helping people.” Stephanie calls her mom her inspiration.

During her college search, she eyed schools in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. UNC-Chapel Hill was her top choice – until she discovered UNCG.

“The main reason I chose UNCG was their motto. It focuses on service through education…to provide for others. UNCG has things that I like and want to experience.”

It was while she was applying to UNCG that her high school advisor, Maria Mendoza, nominated her for the prestigious Univision “Premios Juventud” Youth Awards, a sizeable scholarship given every year to deserving high school seniors of Hispanic heritage. During a live, televised event, Stephanie was chosen as the top finalist and awarded a $50,000 scholarship by Univision. She was moved to tears during a surprise message from President Obama.

“Stephanie Perez, I understand where you are coming from because I had a single mother as well, and I was raised like that, and I know it is difficult,”
the President said.

She was also awarded scholarships from UNCG – the Dorothy Dillon Raymer and Augustus Barker Raymer Memorial Scholarship and the Lettie Pate Whitehead Foundation Scholarship.

“My UNCG experience is helping me get where I want to be,” she says. Her dreams are to become a neurosurgeon or a psychiatrist. She hopes to travel to Africa or India to gain volunteering experience. “I’m looking into an internship that would allow me to work hands-on or to do research in mental health issues.”

She believes that UNCG is a perfect school for students who come from diverse background and interests. “UNCG helps you learn who you are and what you like. You will always find a place where you will fit in.”

Stephanie is historian of the biology club, a Student Government Association senator, a Spartan Guide and a member of the salsa club, where she believes she is developing lifetime friendships. In Kattya Castellon, associate director of admissions, she has found a mentor and a confidante. “When I was choosing classes, I wasn’t sure what to take and I needed a schedule that would allow me to be with my mom on certain days. Ms. Castellon helped me pick the right classes. She also spoke with me when times were getting tough and helped me find organizations and other resources that have been helpful.”

At UNCG, the possibilities to achieve her goals seem endless. She likens her life to the morphing of a butterfly. Without the struggle, there are no wings, she says, echoing Maya Angelou. “This is the right place to spread my wings.”

By Aparna Das, contributor

Photography by David Wilson, University Relations