Our Stories

Charting a Life of Meaning

Elizabeth Calixtro '13 is one of eight Gates Millennium Scholars enrolling at Willamette University this fall. She plans to use her scholarship to study politics and law - and advocate for human rights. Below are excerpts from her scholarship essays.

When I was 7 years old, my mother told me we were moving to Mexico because my grandmother was dying and she needed to say goodbye. I didn't return to the U.S. until I was in sixth grade, and suddenly felt like I was an outsider in my own country. I looked around and I couldn't understand a single sign in the school hallways. Learning English was definitely the toughest challenge I've ever had. My head felt hot and swollen by the end of the school day, and seeing the big yellow school bus was possibly my favorite part of the day.

One day my dad was waiting by the door for me. He looked tired and I could see the effort he was making to smile at his little daughter. He looked so vulnerable to me, and that just broke my heart. The closer I got, the more I felt the urge to run up to him and give him a big warm hug. He whispered in my ear that he had a surprise for me.

I opened his gift and it was a Spanish-English dictionary. My dad said, "I bought this at Goodwill. Is this what you need?" I said, "Yes, dad, this is exactly what I need." In my heart I knew I wasn't talking about the dictionary. What I really needed was my dad's love, support and faith. What could be more beautiful than a man who does not know how to read giving you the book that will change your life?

From that moment on, every effort I made to learn the language was made with my dad in mind. It took me at least another year to become confident with my English, but when I finally did, I felt liberated. I joined the Woodburn High School speech and debate team and it changed my life. I placed second at the district level and was a semi-finalist at the state competition, taking seventh place. My junior year I was voted president of the team, and was reelected my senior year. When somebody wants something as much as I wanted to speak English, anything is possible.

I am now a member of the Voz Hispana political action committee in Woodburn, Ore. Last year we worked on the Voter Organizing Project. Our goal was to encourage Latino citizens to participate in the electoral process. We went around town knocking on people's doors and asking them if they had registered to vote or if they needed assistance. We also made hundreds of phone calls, and offered to help by answering questions.

Through this organization I learned the basics of community activism. I had never been so close to the reality of politics; by now, I have already been to the state capitol, talked to our representative, attended multiple hearings and rallies, and even talked to our new president, Barack Obama. I gained knowledge that I never thought I could gain at such a young age.

One of my long-term goals in life is to become a lawyer and advocate for human rights. I believe that height, color, age or economic status should not be a factor in deciding who has rights and who doesn't. There are many people who need to have a voice, need to be understood and need to be seen. I will always strive to provide support to those in need, because that's why I'm in this world. This is my passion. This is my life.

The prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship program, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, offers full-ride scholarships to exceptional students who otherwise might not be able to attend college. Nearly one-third of the 24 Oregon recipients in 2009 have chosen to attend Willamette.