“I never thought this could happen to me.”
That was Paula Natalia Gongora Quintero’s initial thought when she spotted an application form for the Ontario Remembrance Scholarship at Niagara College late last year. Fortunately, she applied anyway.
Now the international student in her second year of the Business Administration – Human Resources (Co-op) program is the proud recipient of the $10,500 award – the highest monetary award be granted to one student at the College and its most competitive with almost 200 applicants. It was also the first time an award has been open to NC’s domestic and international students.
Quintero said that she was so shocked when she read an email notifying her that she had won that she burst into tears. “It felt like a dream,” she said. “I called my family and they were so proud of their little girl and we prayed together.”
After the announcement, she shared the news on her YouTube channel to encourage others who share her Latin American culture that dreams can come true.
Originally from Colombia, Quintero was drawn to study in Canada after researching postsecondary institutions to study abroad and learning about NC.
“What I loved about the NC community was its openness to diversity, inclusion and support tools for international students,” she said. “Leaving behind your home country, family and friends is so dramatic, that I was waiting for a school that could help me with this transition.”
She loves her program at NC and has been excelling academically with higher than a 90% average in all of her classes. Creating a new life in Canada however, has been marked by hard work for Quintero who, along with her husband of two years, now calls Niagara Falls home. She has been working three different jobs to support her education.
As a student ambassador for the College, Quintero works to implement COVID-19 safety measures on campus – checking in students and employees at entrance points as part of NC’s restricted access procedures, and promoting physical distancing practices. She also guides new students to campus services. In addition to working at NC, she is employed as a customer services representative at Intelcom Express and as a cleaner at a local grocery store.
The scholarship, which has been set aside for tuition and fees for the next academic year, comes as a great relief for Quintero, knowing that she is able to pay for her final year of study in full and focus on her career goals. She plans to establish a non-profit to connect newcomers to Canada with employers and community services, help guide them through challenges and contribute towards their dreams.
The scholarship is about much more than the money for Quintero. “It is proof that anyone, regardless of their culture or language, can make a difference,” she said.
This was the first year the Ministry of Colleges and Universities has funded the Ontario Remembrance Scholarship at NC, in memory of the victims of the Ukrainian airliner crash in Iran in January 2020, which claimed the lives of 57 Canadians, including 34 Ontario postsecondary students or staff members.
“We thank the Government of Ontario for supporting student success at Niagara College through the Ontario Remembrance Scholarship,” said Marc Nantel, PhD, vice-president, Research & External Relations. “Helping students achieve their dreams is a meaningful tribute to the tragic loss of life from the Ukrainian airliner crash, which was deeply felt by college communities across the province.”
Financial Aid advisor Marissa Ditto noted that it was not easy to select a winner for the award from such a large pool of applicants. The selection committee shortlisted seven students for final round interviews, who all demonstrated a passion for their studies. Academic achievement, community engagement, volunteer experience, and financial need were factors in their final decision.
“Paula was selected because she went above and beyond in her academic achievements, her engagement and involvement in the Niagara College community, and had clear career goals and path to reach those goals,” said Ditto.
Quintero was applauded for being a great ambassador for NC with a positive and realistic attitude. Ditto pointed to her employment as an engaged student ambassador, her volunteer work to assist newcomers to Canada, her involvement with College research projects, and the fact that she created her own YouTube channel to document her experience and assist other international students.
“She wants to be a model of her culture to not only challenge stereotypes, but to motivate others to start their careers,” said Ditto. “Her career goals align perfectly with her values and beliefs, and her involvement and accomplishments thus far on her NC journey also reflect this.”
Knowing that she was selected for the scholarship among so many other applicants fills Quintero with pride and made her feel that “every tear was worth it.”
“This has motivated me to keep high standards, but also to share my experience with other students who think that financial or language barriers are an excuse to give up,” she said. “Everyone has a mission to leave a print that others can use as an example, and my goal is to prove that, as Latins, we have wonderful skills and capabilities to be leaders in our College and communities.”
Niagara College offers more than 130 diploma, bachelor degree and advanced level programs; as well as more than 600 credit, vocational and general interest Part-Time Studies courses. Areas of specialization include food and wine science, advanced technology, media, applied health and community safety, supported by unique learning enterprises in food, wine, beer, distilling, horticulture and esthetics. For more information visit niagaracollege.ca.