Gates Scholar and Act Six student Gustavo Moreno-Vela overcame poverty, the temptation of gangs and a difficult childhood to achieve his dream: attend college
By Sean Patterson
The fact that Gustavo Moreno-Vela is one of only three students in Oregon to secure a Beat the Odds Scholarship last year should come as no surprise to those who know him.
After all, the determined Woodburn High School graduate has spent his entire life beating the odds. He grew up in a single-parent home where money was scarce. He moved three times as a child, at one point living with a dozen family members in a cramped apartment. Many of his classmates gave in to temptation, dabbling in drugs and alcohol – or dropping out of school. Friends joined gangs and tried to persuade him to do the same.
But Moreno-Vela, 18, always had a dream – to attend college – and nothing was going to derail it.
“I was determined not to be one of those kids who didn’t make it to his high school graduation,” he said. “My mother (Amalia) was a big inspiration to me. She worked hard as a teacher’s aide and was always teaching me to value what I have. I didn’t want to let her down.”
‘I was thinking Stanford or Oregon State, but I liked the idea of going to a university where you had a smaller community and professors knew you by name.’
A trip to his mother’s native Mexico at age 14 gave Moreno-Vela further motivation. “It opened my eyes to the fact we have so many opportunities here. It was a big wake-up call.”
Now the biggest obstacle to overcome was finances. How could he afford college? Moreno-Vela applied for and received a Gates Scholarship, designated by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for low-income minority students seeking an education. He also secured a $10,000 Beat the Odds scholarship, compliments of the nonprofit Stand for Children Leadership Center. Initially 110 Oregon students applied for the scholarship, of which only three were chosen.
Finally, he was selected for the university’s Act Six program (actsix.georgefox.edu), which each year provides full-ride scholarships to about 10 emerging urban leaders.
“I didn’t really know about George Fox,” he admits. “But after I visited I felt at home. I also heard they had a great engineering program. I had no idea. I was thinking Stanford or Oregon State, but I liked the idea of going to a university where you had a smaller community and professors knew you by name.”
Moreno-Vela arrives with an impressive resume. He graduated with a 3.9 grade point average and as class salutatorian. He also starred on Woodburn’s varsity soccer team, serving as team captain and earning all-league honors.
At George Fox, he is studying civil engineering and playing soccer. Ultimately, he wants to return to Woodburn after graduation.
“It’s not fully sketched out, but I know I want to do something service-oriented,” he said. “And I really want to get involved in things that target youth — things that will encourage them to pursue their dreams.”
His advice to youth?
“Don’t believe the myths — that college is too expensive, that you can’t get a career if you grew up in a bad situation,” he said. “Stay focused on your goals and don’t let your peers tell you what to do. I remember being faced with temptation all the time. I’m just glad I made the choice to succeed.”