Michelle Leon-Cigarroa, a senior at KIPP Austin Collegiate (KAC), vividly remembers her first days as a KIPPster. “When I started at KIPP Austin College Prep in the 5th grade, there was a big mountain drawn on the wall. My class was drawn at the base, and there was a winding path leading up to the peak where it said ‘2021 graduation.’ And I remember my imagination immediately leapt; I could see myself there, on the mountain, climbing, getting to the top, and reaching my goal of graduating high school and getting to college.”
Seven years later, the goal of college still within her sights, Michelle’s final steps up the mountain just got a little easier: Last month, Michelle earned the honor of being named a 2021 Dell Scholar. She now joins an elite group of college-bound students who will receive a $20,000 educational scholarship, annual credits for textbooks, a new laptop, and ongoing educational support. Only 500 applicants are selected each year for this prestigious national award, making the Dell Scholarship one of the most competitive scholarships in the country.
KIPP Texas students are well-versed in the process of applying for college scholarships. “As a counseling team, we require our seniors to apply for at least one scholarship per month…and it is so rewarding when we see their years of hard work pay off,” says Ingrid Fragoso, Michelle’s KIPP Through College counselor at KAC. At KIPP Austin Collegiate alone, the graduating class of 2021 has already received over $4.5 million in institutional grants and scholarships.
“As I’ve applied for different scholarships,” Michelle said, “it’s so easy to get excited about the ‘what-if’s.’ What if I get this? What if we don’t have to worry about money anymore? So when I found out I received the Dell Scholarship, I was really excited. After so much work, there is finally light at the end of the tunnel.”
Although Michelle always wowed KIPP teachers with her impressive work ethic, she was often reluctant to make her voice heard. “When I first met Michelle,” KAC Computer Science, Engineering, and Design teacher George Ramirez says, “she was shy, timid, and didn’t really talk to anyone.” But over time, Mr. Ramirez worked with Michelle on developing skills in communication and leadership, and this year, Michelle became Managing Director for the KAC Robotics Team. “I didn’t want to do it at first,” Michelle said. “I have social anxiety sometimes, and question if I’m communicating my ideas correctly or if they are coming out like a foreign language. I didn’t know if I could be a leader.” But Ramirez promised he would be there to guide her, and Michelle finally accepted the position. “Our program has exploded because of her leadership,” says Ramirez. “It’s amazing to see a student who used to only say ‘hi’ now stand in front of the room, give direction, set a vision and lay out expectations, and then hop in and support her team.”
Michelle credits her work with the KAC Robotics Team for helping her find her voice. “I took a chance pushing past my boundaries, and it was scary! But this experience helped me find myself – and find a new version of myself that I didn’t know existed.” Michelle’s confidence will be important next year as she begins her college career. She plans to study computer programing, and “as a Latina woman in that field, I’m going to need those skills so my voice doesn’t get shut out.”
Fragroso is confident that Michelle will thrive after her graduation. “Michelle just refuses to let opportunities slip by. Fear does not stop her. And even though she is the kind of person who will credit everyone around here, 100% of what happens to Michelle–the Dell Scholarship, the college acceptances–is all because of her. She creates opportunities for herself.”
Michelle will make her college decision in the upcoming weeks, and is excited for whatever comes next. “We’ve been getting prepared for college since I started at KIPP seven years ago. I’m ready.”