By Jenny Neyman
For Tiffany Lopez, there was already plenty of evidence of persistence, optimism and work ethic. The Nikiski High School senior has wanted to be a vet since she was 3 years old and she’s been determined to make it happen.
She’s a solidly good student, not an effortless achiever, and works hard for the grades she gets, says teacher Laura Niemczyk, and that’s on top of working 30 hours a week because she pitches in to the family’s finances.
Lopez didn’t have money for college but had been figuring out a way to get an education, whether by staying in Alaska for school or going to a less expensive school out of state.
Niemczyk thinks she can accomplish anything. No matter what blocks her path, Lopez keeps finding a way forward.
“She has persistence. She can overcome any challenge that’s been thrown at her, she never lets something that happens in her own life hold her back, she sees it as a challenge and a way to move forward and to make her a stronger person. And so she’s taken any tragedy or adversity she’s had and turned it into a positive for her,” Niemczyk said.
Just look at her email address for proof.
“My name, ‘Tiffany, dot v-e-t, dot the number two, dot the lowercase letter b.’ So it reads, ‘Tiffany vet to be,’” Lopez said.
Or, for a slightly more obvious example, look at her certificate of being a Gates Millennial Scholar, which carries with it a full-ride scholarship for 10 years of post-secondary schooling.
“It’s kind of the Cadillac of all scholarships that are out there,” Niemczyk said. “This is the only one of its kind that will guarantee kids that much financial aid at this point in their life.”
The scholarship was started through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to support minority students of limited financial means, who excel in academics and leadership through participation in community service, extracurricular or other activities. One thousand recipients are chosen each year, from over 50,000 applying. And Lopez, from Nikiski, is one of them.
“I am over-the-moon excited about this,” Niemczyk said. “I told her from the very beginning that she could do this and I have complete faith in it. And I don’t think she started to believe it until we actually uploaded her application and she looked at all of her essays and she read them and went, ‘Holy cow, look at what I’ve compiled over the last five months. This is amazing.’ And then she started to get hopeful.”
Niemczyk attended a conference in Homer last year with the Talk Story, Write Story organization, where participants are trained how to get through the lengthy Gates application process. She brainstormed with the school counselor about students at Nikiski who might apply, and Lopez’s work ethic shot her to the top of the list.
“Tiffany Lopez was like, ‘Yep, I’m all over this. If you say I can do it, I can do it.’ It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know exactly how hard it was going to be when we started or neither one of us might have started. Literally, it is a monster and a beast,” Niemczyk said.
The application is 32 pages long and required Lopez to write eight essays up to 1,000 words each. Niemczyk, as the nominator, had to do her own five-page application and three essays, and a recommender, teacher Joe Rizzo, had a six-page application and six essays to write. Then all of that had to be reviewed, revised and finally submitted online, which took three hours alone.
Then, there was nothing to do but wait. In March, Lopez got an email notification that she was a semifinalist, and the possibility of actually winning the scholarship became a little more real.
“It was just immediate, chain reaction just crying of happiness of the actual chance. And it was at that moment I really, just kind of realized that it could have been real, and I actually had a chance at this,” Lopez said.
Earlier this month, her mom, Carolyn, checked the mail and found a large envelope. She took it to Lopez, but first passed it around the room.
“So when I finally got it in my hands I knew that there was something really good in there,” Lopez said. “I opened it up and immediately when I saw the words, ‘Congratulations,’ I just dropped to the floor. It was completely involuntary. I dropped to my knees and just sobbed. It was such an emotional moment. It was amazing. I’ve been on the same sort of happiness level ever since. And I’m just so grateful for everything that has happened and for the teachers at Nikiski High School and for everything and all the work that went into this. And it’s seriously just a dream right now. And I don’t ever want to wake up from it.”
Lopez doesn’t have to wake up from this dream, not for the next 10 years of the scholarship. Her horizons are suddenly broadened past even her most optimistic imaginings. She had decided on attending the affordable University of Wyoming, but now plans to transfer to Colorado State University after her freshman year, which has the third-ranked veterinary school in the country. She wants to study abroad in Spain. She plans to get a business degree along with her vet training, so she can run her own vet clinic someday. And she wants to spend an extra two years after getting her doctorate specializing in large animals.
“The world and a slew of options have opened up to her. It’s the wonder and joy of seeing her look at life with all these possibilities that, five or six months ago, she didn’t think she had,” Niemczyk said.
Lopez is going to live her dreams, and hopes that doing so inspires others to pursue theirs, as well.
“I welcome this new obligation of being a role model to my sisters, and to actually everyone at my school so I can watch these kids be inspired and grow up to achieve their dreams like I have,” Lopez said.