Bergen Student Semifinalist in National Scholarship

By Palina Yamkavaya

Melissa Jara, an international student at BCC, barely spoke any English when she first came to the US almost three years ago. In February, she was selected as a semifinalist for a prestigious national Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. This scholarship supports exceptional community college students who are looking to complete their bachelor’s degrees.

Melissa grew up in Ecuador in a small town where the majority spoke Spanish, so her English skills weren’t anywhere near the academic level. Despite that, after graduating high school, she decided to try herself and seize the opportunities in the US everyone was telling her about back home. “I wanted to take the challenge,” Jara said.

Her challenge included not just moving and living on her own, but also going to a community college and learning English. “I wanted to come to a community college because of its diversity,” Jara said.. “The word ‘community’ stood out to me immediately.”

In her first few classes, Jara used to record her lectures because she couldn’t understand most of the things the professor would say. “My listening skills were just awful,” Jara said. “My level was around B1, but I wanted to improve.”

Jara, who is an engineering science major, had the biggest trouble with her humanities and social science classes. As for math, “math wasn’t an issue, math is numbers, you don’t have to read and analyze the text,” she said. 

Her love for science started with her parents. Jara’s father is a STEM engineer, and her mother is a commercial engineer. “My dad inspired me, but my mom was my tutor, she taught me math,” Jara said. 

At first, she didn’t even know how scholarships worked. When she found out, she was very hesitant and nervous to apply for it. Even when her English got significantly better, she was still doubtful of her abilities. “I thought there were people much better than me,” Jara said. However, she worked with her professors, mentors, and friends to get everything in order.

When she finally decided to apply, “the hardest part was to organize my whole educational journey since high school and choose what’s good for application,” Jara said. The most important part she considered was, “being honest and highlighting yourself” in the application.

“Being selected as a semifinalist is already a huge accomplishment for me,” Jara said. Her next step is proving the “need” aspect to the foundation. If received, Jara wants to use this scholarship to go to Rutgers University and get her bachelor’s degree in engineering.  

Jara is also an established member of the Governor’s STEM Scholars Program. She is passionate about creating devices that aim to improve our society. Currently, she and her fellow scholars are working on creating a device for people that will allow for better physical rehabilitation. 

In the future, she’s hoping to get a doctorate degree and become a mentor, researcher, and professor. As a Hispanic woman in STEM, Jara wants to foster the interest in engineering in others, especially women, who are rather absent in this field. 

Jara’s example proves that to take advantage of given educational opportunities one doesn’t need perfect English or to be born in the US. For those who consider applying for scholarships but doubt themselves or their story, Jara said that “everyone has a story, a background they can tell about in the application, just don’t give up.”


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