Coca-Cola scholar pursues her dream of helping others

Coca Cola Scholar

Four or five hours a day, every school day of the year, Denisse Gonzalez takes the bus between her home in Burien and UW Bothell. It’s a commitment worth making on the road to her future.

“Sometimes, when I don’t want to get up so early to ride the bus, I remember how much I’m learning and how much I can do with my education in the future,” says Denisse, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and the first in her family to attend college.

Her path to a degree is much more navigable thanks to her participation in the Academic Transition Program (ATP) — an intensive college prep experience for first-year, first-generation students at UW Bothell. And, the burden of paying for her education was eased by a scholarship from the Coca-Cola Foundation called the First Gen Engaged Scholars. This is a $100,000 pilot program that is providing $2,500 a year over four years to 10 first-generation students at UW Bothell.

The scholarship made it possible for Denisse to forego a part-time job and focus solely on her studies. She and the other Coca-Cola scholars must maintain at least a 3.0 GPA and participate in an enhanced learning experience, such as the study abroad trip Denisse took to Brazil earlier this year. Denisse says the Coca-Cola scholars have bonded with each other and with Sara Ali, who directs the ATP program.

“Sara pushes us to do what we believe is unthinkable because she believes in us. We call her our ATP Mom,” Denisse says. “I go to Sara’s office on days I feel overwhelmed. One day, she said, ‘This is your education and your opportunity to have your voice heard for maybe the first time ever. Use it.’ And she’s right. This is my chance to be heard, to grow, to pursue my academic aspirations, make connections and ask questions.”


Denisse also credits Janelle Silva, an assistant professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, for “helping me believe in myself and find my voice.”

“I’ve never had a Mexican-American woman as an educator,” Denisse explains. “I thought, wow, I’m finally represented in the classroom. I felt so proud. Through her example, she showed me I was here because I deserved to be, I worked for it. And if she could do it, I could do it.”

Self-confidence was in short supply for Denisse before she arrived at UW Bothell. A personal health issue her junior year in high school forced her to miss a lot of school and falter in her studies.

“I learned that life is unpredictable,” she muses. “Before, I wasn’t really trying in school. It was the wake-up call to do something positive, to give back to my community. I decided I was going to graduate and somehow go to college.”

Thanks to her hard work and determination — and that welcome scholarship — Denisse is on track toward the future she envisions: paying forward all the support she’s been given from her family and her mentors by starting a career centered on helping others.