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Four students and one graduate from Georgia State University’s Perimeter College recently were named as semifinalists for the 2022 Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. The Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship is a competitive scholarship for the nation’s top community (two-year) college students, and provides recipients up to $55,000 per year, placing the scholarship among the largest private awards in the country for community college transfer students. The following is a profile of one of the five semifinalists.
By Kysa Anderson Daniels
Photo by Bill Roa
DUNWOODY, Ga.–Shirley Ortega, a first-generation psychology student at Georgia State University Perimeter College, has a way of turning obstacles into opportunities.
Her knack for figuring things out on her own started when she was six-years-old and had to ask teachers and staff members for help with math, reading and writing assignments.
Now 20, Ortega learned this kind of initiative from her mother, Catalina Reyes, who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala before Ortega was born, but when her older sister was four months old.
“The living conditions that she was under were very impoverished,” Ortega said of what her mother endured in Guatemala.
“She did not know if she was going to be able to eat the next day…and could not afford to buy new shoes and clothes that she outgrew throughout the years; she did not have livable conditions.”
Ortega describes her mother as loving, highly supportive of education and a hard worker, holding multiple jobs at a time to make ends meet.
“At a young age, I was forced to become independent in a sense [because] I did not always have my mother by my side,” Ortega said, referring to her mom’s demanding work schedule but strong desire for her daughters to get the education she could not.
“I understood her efforts and sacrifices because she always expressed she did it so that my sister and I would not have to endure the difficult circumstances she went through,” Ortega says, emphasizing the gratitude she feels for her mother.
“Despite the adversities I experienced throughout my life, I was always encouraged to pursue higher education—and instead of perceiving my obstacles as restraints, I saw them as inspirations.”
This can-do attitude is a major reason that Ortega is named as one of 440 national semifinalists for the 2022 Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship.
Ortega says she is humbled to have been selected as a semi-finalist.
“This is a tremendous accomplishment,” Ortega said, noting that her mother’s formal education stopped at seventh grade.
At Perimeter College, Ortega excels in and outside the classroom. She’s an Honors College student, with a 3.91 GPA and a member of several organizations designed to heighten the student experience.
Ortega participates in research, scholarship and internship opportunities in the Dunwoody Psychology Club.
She’s also involved with the Latinx Student Service and Outreach (LASSO) program, an organization that provides career, leadership, academic and other assistance to first-generation Latinx college students.
In addition, Ortega enjoys being part of the Honors College Mentorship and Leadership Program which pairs Honors College students with mentors who share resources and information about what to expect during the completion of their bachelor’s degree.
Jack Kent Cooke Scholars are selected for their academic ability and achievement, financial need, persistence, service to others and leadership. In addition to financial support, recipients receive educational advising and the chance to connect with fellow Cooke Scholars.
Ortega will receive her associate degree from Perimeter College on May 4. If selected for the Jack Kent Cooke award, she will continue her studies in psychology with a minor in neuroscience at Emory University. Her long-term goals include getting a Ph.D. in clinical psychology to become a child psychologist.
“I’m working incredibly hard to help children in need by providing mental health services and making them aware that their obstacles are not limitations,” Ortega says.
“They must keep moving forward, pursuing their dreams and aspirations to become tomorrow’s better future.”
Winners of the 2022 Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship will be announced in May.