SILER CITY — When COVID-19 forced schools online in 2020, college-bound Evelin Muñoz Tebalan found herself thrust into a precarious balancing act during the most important year of her high school career.
She had to navigate first zero and then limited internet access, care for her little brother and take responsibility for his education — all while maintaining her own high-achieving academic record, a crucial ingredient in achieving her college dream.
“Personally, I was trying to keep up with all of my work — just doing maybe a couple pages of essays every single day, working for hours just trying to maintain my grades,” said Muñoz Tebalan, 17. “At some point, it didn’t just become about my grades, it became about me just wanting to learn, and that kept me going, but also the feeling that knowing that everything would pay off in the end.”
It did pay off. At the end of her junior year, she served as Jordan-Matthews High School’s chief junior marshal and received the Harvard Prize Book award for “display[ing] excellence in scholarship and high character, combined with achievements in other fields.” Now a second-semester senior, she’s been selected as one of 411 semifinalists nationwide for the prestigious Cooke College Scholarship.
“Being a Jack Kent Cooke semifinalist marks a major stepping stone towards my goal of attending a four-year college,” Muñoz Tebalan told the News + Record. “ … I’m honored to be closer in having the opportunity to form a part of the wonderful, supportive Jack Kent Cooke community, which I know can provide an invaluable enrichment experience in my undergraduate years if I were to become a finalist.”
The scholarship program received more than 5,300 applications from high school students across all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam. Among the 22 North Carolina semifinalists, Muñoz Tebalan is the only student from Chatham County.
Awarded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the Cooke College Scholarship seeks to enable high-achieving high school seniors from low-income backgrounds to attend the nation’s top colleges and universities. In April, the foundation will announce about 60 finalists, who will receive up to $55,000 annually for four years of college, along with guidance about selecting a college, navigating financial aid and maximizing the college student experience.
“This year’s semifinalists should be particularly proud of their success in the face of a challenging year,” said the foundation’s executive director, Seppy Basili, in a Feb. 3 release. “We are so happy to help more students achieve their long-term academic goals. All of the applicants will be an asset to the colleges and universities they attend in the fall.”
Muñoz Tebalan has dreamt of graduating from college from a young age.
It’s a goal her parents — immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala — instilled into her as a child and for which she’s worked toward for years by excelling academically, participating in college readiness programs like AVID, and cultivating her voice in youth leadership programs like Orgullo Latinx Pride (OLP), the Hispanic Liaison’s youth group.
In fact, she originally heard about the Cooke College Scholarship through OLP, and applied for the scholarship — and to more than 10 universities — with support and encouragement from the group, of which she’s been a member since the summer after her first year of high school.
“I couldn’t have done it without them!” Muñoz Tebalan said.
Of the universities she’s applied to, she’s so far been accepted into nine, including UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State. Now, she’s waiting to hear back from Wake Forest University, Davidson College and her dream college, Columbia University in New York — decisions which Muñoz Tebalan’s mentor and OLP program director, Selina Lopez, said she’s “almost pretty certain” will come back as three acceptance letters.
“She’s definitely put in a lot of work, and she has so much resilience and so much grit,” Lopez said. “There’s just other parts of her story, too, that I’m just like, ‘Wow, you know, this young woman is so amazing.’ She very much deserves this scholarship, and we’re just crossing our fingers.”
So, the only remaining challenge? Finding the means to finance it all. That’s why being named as a Cooke College Scholarship finalist would mean the world to her.
“The funds itself mean that I’ll be set in paying for college, something that has been a prime concern of mine for years,” Muñoz Tebalan said. “It’s one of the reasons I’ve worked hard in each school assignment and activity. … However, I’ve had this conviction knowing that my family cannot financially afford to send me to college. Getting accepted to colleges is just the first step, but ultimately it won’t amount to anything if I’m not able to pay for it.”
Right now, she’s leaning toward studying journalism and marketing — fields in which she feels she can share her voice and be a social advocate.
“Journalism, I feel like I’d be able to do that pretty well,” she said, “and then with marketing, I feel like it’d be nice to be able to reach out to people with social media, or helping out with marketing and campaigns or anything.”
Muñoz Tebalan particularly wants to educate others about issues she herself became more aware of during high school and through OLP.
“So first of all, as the daughter of immigrants, I want to be able to share my voice about what indocumentación is like from, like, our side, our perspective,” she said. “It’s not just about politics; it’s about, you know, family lives.”
She also wants to be an advocate for mental health.
“As a high schooler, and as a friend to many people who have mental health illnesses and suffer from mental health, I’ve been on the receiving end of phone calls in the middle of the night telling me that a lot of them are just having a tough time,” she said, “and I want to make sure that they’re getting the resources that they need.”
For her part, Lopez has no doubt Muñoz Tebalan will succeed in whichever career and college she chooses.
“I feel like she knows what she wants, and she’s putting in the effort and it’s paying off, and she’s not only making me proud, but she’s making her whole community super proud,” Lopez told the News + Record. “I’m also really excited to see where she goes, ‘cause she’s just gonna be soaring, you know, just like, she’s gonna soar. I can see it. She’s gonna thrive at whatever college she chooses.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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