Tomorrow Fund bridges financial aid gap for Hispanic students
Jan. 18, 2014 @ 08:38 AM

Glenda Polanco was only 8 when she immigrated from El Salvador to Durham. She became the English speaker of the family, ordering for her mom and younger brother at restaurants, talking to car mechanics and paying the bills.

With her single mother sometimes working three jobs to make ends meet, Polanco was the second mom, the head of the household. School ended up being her only escape; the only venue where she could be herself.

Now, Polanco’s a senior at Meredith College, studying exercise and sports science, and the Tomorrow Fund for Hispanic Students helped lay the bricks of her path to a May 3 graduation.

The Tomorrow Fund, which awards scholarships to Hispanic students from low-income families seeking help with tuition, is coming up on its fifth anniversary. The organization is celebrating the nearly $500,000 it has awarded to Latino students at North Carolina colleges and universities.

Many of these aspiring college students are the first in their family to attend college. Many learned English in elementary school. Some are undocumented.

Tomorrow Fund founder Diane Evia-Lanevi said the organization gives scholarships to about 30 students per year. This year, they helped 28 students, awarding scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $16,000.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s those final several thousands of dollars that really make a difference,” Evia-Lanevi said.

North Carolina colleges nominate students who struggle with a gap in funding after all their school financial aid has been assigned. Students must reapply every year for additional funding.

Polanco said she has received Tomorrow Fund scholarships for all four years of her schooling, and now she plans to get her Ph.D. in occupational therapy and work for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“I knew that I had to go to college,” Polanco said. “That was the whole reason my mother brought me here. ... I wanted to be an example for my younger cousins and, especially, more importantly, for my younger brother.”

Alberto Negrellos-Aguilera, who just received his third Tomorrow Fund scholarship, is three semesters away from graduating from Appalachian State University. His journey has been a long one, four years to get to where he is now.

Negrellos-Aguilera was 10 years old when he moved from Mexico to the United States. When he reached high school graduation, his mother suffered from diabetes and his father was jobless. Negrellos-Aguilera pushed back dreams of college to help his family by working construction jobs and picking berries.

“I wasn’t just about to jump out of the boat and let them sink,” he said. 

He has slept in the hallways of his science labs when he had no place else to go, after the buses stopped running late at night. He juggled jobs and school and family issues. He took semester breaks to make more money to pay for school.

Now, his next life goal is to make it into medical school, where he wants to become a family physician. He wants to help others and help his family, Negrellos-Aguilera said.

“There are times when you feel like you’re not going to make it,” he said. “But when you finally see that you’re past the halfway point and a little more, that’s really encouraging.”

Jacqueline Ceron-Hernandez, a freshman going into dental hygiene at UNC-Chapel Hill,   said she moved to Durham from Mexico City when she was about 12 years old. Her father had moved to the U.S. years before the family joined him in Durham, to work in restaurants and in car and truck repair.

As a 19-year-old Tomorrow Fund recipient, she’s now the first-year committee chair of the Carolina Hispanic Association, which teaches other students about Hispanic culture. She also helps recruit minority freshmen.

“When I started high school, I wasn’t sure if I was going to come to college or not because of the money and because I’m an undocumented student, so that was going to make it a lot harder to get into college,” Ceron-Hernandez said.

Even though she worked hard to get into college, she said, she still couldn’t believe last fall that she was finally enrolled at UNC.

After “thinking that I would have probably gone back to Mexico to study there, I made it here. It was possible,” she said.