Editor's note: This column is part of a series featuring Lakeshore residents sharing their stories.
I still remember that moment in 2015, when the representative from the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area stepped up to the stage during my West Ottawa High School convocation to announce that year's scholarship awardees.
Many of us already knew who would be receiving scholarships we had interviewed for ahead of time, so the ceremony was mostly a time-honored tradition to highlight students’ successes.
What I was not expecting was the wait — name after name was called from the list, scholarship after scholarship. I remember thinking to myself, “I know I've earned a scholarship. What in the world is taking so long for her to say my name?"
And then it came.
What I mostly remember next is her saying my name, then almost everything around me going blank. All I could hear were the words, “… and to Michael Sandoval we award the Promise Scholarship, a testament to our communities' promise to him that we will walk alongside him on this journey ahead.”
Michael Sandoval with MSU alum Ernest Green, one of 'Little Rock Nine.'
I was trembling. I could not believe I had received the scholarship that would suddenly put all the pieces together, ensuring that I could attend Michigan State University.
I sat down, and my girlfriend — now my fiancée — congratulated me. I remember turning to her and asking, "Do you know what this means?" It meant I could go to MSU without having to rely on student loans.
Elation and pride
The ceremony ended, and we walked out to our cars and collected ourselves after those life-changing moments in our school's gymnasium. Once alone, I called my parents to tell them what had just happened.
I can only describe their responses as elation and pride. I remember both my mom and dad crying, thanking God they wouldn’t have to take on debt or (jokingly) rob a bank.
Looking back on this moment now, so much of what made it possible was my journey through the federally funded TRIO Upward Bound program at Hope College.
Established after the signing the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, TRIO programs exist to lift disadvantaged students — mainly students of color and those from lower economic backgrounds — in giving them the resources and education they need to ascend the ladders of opportunity and reach their true potential. Alumni of such programs include Viola Davis, Angela Bassett, Donna Brazile and Cardi B, so I'd say we're in great company.
Michael Sandoval with his TRIO Upward Bound family.
I owe so much of who I am today and what I've accomplished to the Upward Bound program and the amazing women who have run it for their entire careers. Director Elizabeth Colburn and Assistant Director Andrea Mireles have become second mothers to me — strong and amazing women who have pushed me to be my best self at every twist and turn life has thrown at me.
My summers from eighth to 11th grade were spent unlike those of other students. Instead of staying up all hours of the night and sleeping in till mid-afternoon, you could find me and 70 or so other students in the halls of Hope College. We spent six weeks in classes that would prepare us for the school year ahead. We took trips across the state and to other states to visit prospective schools. I also took a class that was led at the time by my amazing aunt, Lucia Rios. It helped us better understand careers and what we wanted to achieve in life.
Fighting for others
I had always known from an early age that I wanted to spend my life dedicated to fighting for others. So much of this spirit came from my time connecting with others during the summers I spent at Hope, learning about the history of the Freedom Riders and the civil rights movement. And having discussions with coaches, who have become lifelong friends, about the importance of a variety of topics, and talking about the effects of today's environment on tomorrow's world.
Michael Sandoval with Andrea Mireles at his TRIO Upward Bound graduation.
Upward Bound taught me how to aim high and how to achieve higher. I spent my life wanting to attend the University of Michigan, but I was deferred in the fall of my senior year in high school, so I chose to attend Michigan State instead. I thought I had failed, that I had let down my family and my dreams.
Well, now that I'm a year removed from my 2019 college graduation, I couldn't imagine having gone anywhere other than MSU.
I've noticed lately, during this quasi-work-from-home-quarantine, that the nostalgia I have for those four years comes in intense and emotional waves. So much of me wishes to relive them, though I understand how unrealistic that is.
But I feel this way about my college experience because of the immense gratitude I have for the education I fought to achieve. With sweat, tears, and, yes, even blood, I gained the prize I had been working for since I answered that important question during my first Upward Bound interview … when Andrea Mireles looked at me and asked, "What does the word commitment mean to you?"
My response? Everything.
Born and raised in Holland, Michael Sandoval has recently relocated back to West Michigan, after having graduated from Michigan State University in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at Central Michigan University.