Wendy Mejia Aguilar is chasing down a dream her mom was forced to leave behind six years ago in El Salvador. The violence in the family’s native country was inching closer each day, the life she had worked so hard to build for her two young daughters, in peril. With Wendy, then 14, and Daniela, just eight years old, the family of three emigrated to the United States.
Having never lost sight of the sacrifices her mother has made, Mejia Aguilar seized the educational opportunities Montgomery County offered and never looked back. Today, she is a 4.0 graduate of Montgomery College’s class of 2019 and the winner of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s prestigious Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. The highly competitive scholarship will provide her with up to $40,000 annually for a maximum of three years to complete a bachelor’s degree.
“This means so much to my family, and my mom, in particular,” said Mejia Aguilar, who knew very little English when she arrived in the US. “When I started high school, I didn’t think I would ever go to college. And today, having this opportunity in front of me, it shows that you can do whatever you set your mind to if you work hard.”
A graduate of Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, Mejia Aguilar is one of 1,500 students who applied for the 2019 scholarship. Only 61 students nationwide received the award.
Growing up in Cuscatlán, Cojutepeque, Mejia Aguilar’s parents divorced when she was eight, leaving her mother to care for her and Daniela on her own.
“Since the divorce, the one person who has always supported our family has been my mother. I strongly admire her work ethic in providing for us,” she says.
Back in El Salvador, Mejia Aguilar’s mother established her own convenience store and café. However, she says people may have assumed the small family was wealthy, owning their own store. Subsequently, her mother survived two attempted robberies.
“It was my mother’s dream, having that store, nothing would deter her from making it happen,” she says. “But she worried about our safety… she had to make the decision to immigrate to the US. She left everything behind including the business in which she worked so hard to build.”
“When I started high school, I didn’t think I would ever go to college. And today, having this opportunity in front of me, it shows that you can do whatever you set your mind to if you work hard.”
Despite a full course load at Kennedy, Mejia Aguilar started working as a waitress in a Latino restaurant in order to help her mom who was working multiple jobs. She worked up to 30 hours per week.
“I wanted to help my mom cover our expenses,” she says. “Some days I stayed at the restaurant until 2 a.m., and the next morning I had to go to school. It was hard, but I don’t regret doing it because it was a way to support my mother.”
Today, she works 20 hours a week as a cashier and barista, and coordinates invoices for customer reservations, at a local grill.
Mejia Aguilar credits the ACES program, an increasingly successful academic partnership between the College, Montgomery County Public Schools, and the Universities at Shady Grove, as well as her “Macklin family” for consistently providing guidance and support. As a Macklin Business Institute (MBI) honors scholar, Mejia Aguilar received a collegiate experience that parallels the best business schools in the country, right here at Montgomery College.
Mejia Aguilar is the second student from the MBI program and 14th overall from Montgomery College to earn the Cooke Foundation scholarship. She hopes to attend Yale, Georgetown, or the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business in the fall.
“I feel that I could not have earned this [scholarship] without the help of everybody at Kennedy, including the counselors, and of course, the MBI program,” she said. “To Mr. Lang [MBI director, Steve Lang], to all of my friends in the program, you are my family now, and I just have to say ‘thank you.’”
Dr. Lucy Laufe, the collegewide honors coordinator and the catalyst for MC students applying for the Cooke Foundation scholarship, says Mejia Aguilar’s achievements come as no surprise.
“Wendy’s persistence and engagement, her co-curricular experience with Macklin Business Institute, to graduate with 20 credits in honors course work alone… she’s one of those students who has always gone the extra mile with her academic opportunities,” Laufe said.
Lang says Mejia Aguilar exemplifies the MC and MBI mission, evidenced in her efforts as leader of the “Our Stories Project,” designed to impact ESOL students in the Montgomery County Public Schools system. As an immigrant and former ESOL student herself, Mejia Aguilar felt the importance of proving to these students, including her younger sister, that a path to success awaits them.
“Wendy is the ideal Montgomery College student, excelling in the classroom while providing service to the campus and local community,” Lang said. “I don’t believe there could be a better role model for our high school students and our MC students than Wendy.”