May 30 /CSRwire/ - "I was getting kind of worried," recalled 18-year-old Jose Barraza, Jr., salutatorian of his senior class at Hilltop High School in Chula Vista, Calif. Barraza had decided to turn down the full scholarships offered to him by Stanford and Cal Tech and focus instead on pursuing his real dream: the legendary Massachusetts Institute of Technology, better known as MIT.
But thanks in part to a scholarship sponsored by Microsoft, come August Barraza will be heading east.
Microsoft teamed up this year with the Hispanic Heritage Awards Foundation to offer an expanded range of scholarships to some of the country’s most promising Hispanic high school students. Each Microsoft-sponsored winner will receive a cash scholarship, a computer donated by CompUSA, a trip to visit the Microsoft campus and a gift certificate for Microsoft software. Scholarships were awarded to high school students in Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio and San Diego. In each city, one winner was chosen in each of the following areas of accomplishment: leadership, sports, arts, literature/journalism, academic excellence and, for the first time this year, science and technology, sponsored by Microsoft.
Microsoft’s sponsorship of the Hispanic Heritage Awards Foundation’s scholarship program, one of the company’s many diversity initiatives, underscores its commitment to bridging what has become known as the "digital divide" -- the gap between those who have access to information technology and those who don’t. Through donations, recruitment, hiring and employee support, Microsoft is working to foster an environment of diversity, not only throughout the industry but on college campuses as well.
"Microsoft believes it is important for businesses to work together with the Latino community to provide these types of opportunities," said Santiago Rodriguez, director of diversity at Microsoft. "We are working to eliminate the digital divide that separates many minority students from the technology tools and jobs that are revolutionizing our world."
Rodriguez added that Microsoft benefits from a relationship with minority students as much as the students do.
"Developing the talents of minority students expands the pool of future employees among the nation’s fast growing populations," he said. "It also helps businesses ensure their products integrate the unique perspectives of these populations and meet the needs of all consumers -- not just those we have traditionally served."
Susan Santana, executive director of the Hispanic Heritage Awards Foundation, said she was very pleased with Microsoft’s decision to sponsor the science and technology portion of the scholarship program.
"I’m thrilled because it demonstrates, in a very material way, Microsoft’s commitment to removing the barriers of the digital divide," she said. "Any time the economy changes, there will always be those who change with it and those who fall short. Unfortunately, up until now, being connected or having access to the rewards and benefits of the digital age have been limited to people of means and have excluded large segments, including Latinos. Any time a huge corporation like Microsoft focuses on eliminating that barrier, it shows that we’re making great progress as a society."
Santana said she was impressed with the caliber of this year’s winners. "The most notable characteristic [among the recipients] is that they’re all committed to giving back to the community, in addition to excelling in their particular area," she said. "They’re all going to be leaders -- it’s just a matter of them deciding in what area."
That’s certainly true of Barraza. Raised less than a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border by a single mother who relies on him for translation, Barraza is the oldest of three first-generation Americans. He says he has always been drawn to technology. "The thing that attracts me to it is that it’s always changing, and it’s always a challenge," he says. "You always go forward."
Courtney Krehbiel, managing consultant with Microsoft in San Diego, presented the scholarship to Barraza at an awards ceremony in early May. "I was pleased to represent Microsoft and encourage kids in their future careers," he said. "It’s important that we reach out and show youth that they can become whatever they want to become."
Presenting the scholarship held a special significance for Krehbiel, who said he was given several breaks along the way himself. "I was given opportunities to excel, and I was encouraged in the technology field, which led to my being an engineer and led to my career at Microsoft," he said. "It felt good to pass it back."
He also felt that he and Barraza are kindred spirits. "I could tell he’s on fire for technology," he recalled. "I felt a great balance -- he loves technology not for himself, but for what it can do for people. I saw in him a very outward-bound embracing of technology -- a drive to use technology to make people’s lives better."
After a summer internship at the Salk Institute of Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., Barraza wove together his interests in science, technology and medicine. As part of the Upward Bound Science Shadow program at the Salk Institute, Barraza learned about cutting-edge HIV research by using a wavelength-emitting microscope that illuminated different cell components in various colors. "The technology they used there was amazing," he said. Barraza has also volunteered regularly at Caritas del Sol, an orphanage in nearby Tijuana, Mexico.
At MIT, Barraza plans to major in either chemical or electrical engineering, although he’s already setting his sights far beyond the next four years. "My main interest is medicine," he says, explaining that his desire to help people who are sick stems from the fact that his grandmother has been ill since he was a small child. "I think that when technology and science are used together properly, it can really help people with various types of diseases and people who are incapacitated."
This year, he juggled three part-time jobs to help support his family, regularly staying up until two or three in the morning to finish homework and prepare for the 11 advanced placement tests he took recently. "My mother felt bad, seeing me stay up like that," he said. "But you work hard, and in the end it pays off."
Barraza said he’s impressed with Microsoft’s investment in education. "Life’s not about what you have, but how you get there," he said. "It impresses me that companies like Microsoft recognize that not everyone is as fortunate as them. That they’re willing to give time and money is great. The people they’re helping right now might be their executives in the future."
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