Alfredo Zuniga '12 and President Steve Thorsett discuss science with Salem-area primary students during Darwin Discovery Day April 19.
Zuniga is a starting goal keeper for the men's soccer team at Willamette University.
Zuniga shoots a video through a class offered at Willamette Academy in 2006.
Willamette University senior overcomes obstacles to pursue his education
There is a moment in a man’s life when he knows he’s stumbled onto something great.
For Alfredo Zuniga ’12, that moment came when was accepted into Willamette Academy as a seventh-grader.
“I don’t think I would have started at a four-year school without having gone to Willamette Academy,” Zuniga says. “Neither one of my parents finished middle school. No one in my family knew what college was about.”
That was nine years ago.
Since then, Zuniga enrolled at Willamette University, became a starting goalkeeper for the men’s soccer team and presented his clinical research on fruit flies at the Genetic Society of America’s 2012 annual convention in Chicago.
Next fall, the biology major will continue his studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he plans to earn his master’s and doctorate degrees in neuroendocrinology.
“I’ve always liked the idea of asking questions and being able to answer them,” Zuniga says about his career choice. “Science has always clicked with me.”
Zuniga moved to Salem from Mexico when he was 8 years old, spurred by his parents’ quest to give their children a quality education. Several years later, Zuniga seized the opportunity to attend Willamette Academy, where he received academic support in reading, writing, math, science and technology until he graduated from high school.
With the academy’s help, Zuniga was awarded a full scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which paid for his education at Willamette and will continue to pay for his education at the University of Colorado.
“It was a really well-rounded program,” Zuniga says about the nonprofit organization. “It helped me get into school, not just any school, but the school I wanted.”
Now in its 10th year, the academy’s achievements speak for themselves. Ninety-nine percent of its participants have graduated from high school, and 94 percent have gone on to attend college.
To Program Director Josh Bilbrew, Zuniga is one of the academy’s many success stories. When they first met, Bilbrew says Zuniga was a quiet middle school student. But in time, the young man grew to become a leader and a role model.
“One of the catalysts for him opening up was helping others. The more leadership positions he had, the less afraid he was to step into the spotlight,” Bilbrew says. “When I met him, he had outstanding potential. He was highly motivated. He deserves full credit for his accomplishments.”
As a Gates Scholar, Zuniga could have attended college anywhere in the nation. But for him, there was no choice. He wanted to go to Willamette.
“I’ve been a part of Willamette since I was 13,” Zuniga says. “It’s all I know. It’s been a second home to me.”
Attracted by its small size, reputation for academic excellence and winning soccer team, Zuniga knew Willamette would make a good fit. It was here that he met his mentor, biology professor Jason Duncan, who inspired Zuniga to become a teacher himself one day.
“I want to teach at a small school like Willamette,” Zuniga says. “Jason taught me what I needed to know and let me go. He’s been so influential. I know we will stay good friends after I graduate.”
Duncan, too, is impressed by Zuniga’s commitment to scientific discovery. To that end, Zuniga has carried out extensive research in Duncan’s laboratory during the past two years — both by completing research for his senior thesis and by working as a summer research student in Willamette’s Science Collaborative Research Program.
“Alfredo gave up his entire Christmas break — over two successive years — to come into the lab to work on his project,” Duncan says. “Alfredo enjoyed participating in the research, and he dedicated himself wholeheartedly to his project.”
Ready to embark on his next adventure, Zuniga credits his achievements to the help he’s received from Willamette Academy, his university professors and others who’ve believed in him.
Because of that support, Zuniga says he’s finally ready to leave Salem and delve into new research projects. Up first is discovering the role serotonin plays in depression — a project that will consume his time while in graduate school.
“One hormone’s effects on the human as a whole are very interesting to me,” Zuniga says. “It’s an exciting time to do this kind of work.”