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2017 Scholar Charlyna Gonzales

Culture, Challenge & Determination of a First-generation College Student

On the scenic High Road to Taos sits Vadito, NM. The small village is best known as the home of Sipapu Ski Resort, but to locals it’s a place of rich tradition and community. 

Charlyna Gonzales spent a lot of time outdoors, and activities on her abuelo’s land helped shape her in many ways. It was there that she says she developed an interest in athletics—chasing her sisters and cousins in the field, tossing the football, playing volleyball, even running and jumping fences to stay ahead of the water while helping to clean out the acequia that draws water from the Rio Pueblo for irrigation. 

Charles Gonzales, her grandfather, would take her along to family and neighbor construction projects and taught his granddaughter the importance of working with her hands. His advise was to “see things on a small scale before getting to know the bigger world.”

“I’ve grown up right by his side, he’s like my best friend,” Charlyna said. “He’s a hard worker and so smart—self taught and learned so much on his own. 

Charlyna Gonzales with her grandfather next to the acequia on his land

Charlyna emerged as a dedicated scholar early on. Her parents recognized her potential in Kindergarten when she received a 4.0 award. They gave her a medical playset as a gift when she was seven, and since then she wanted to become a doctor. 

“My parents didn’t have to worry much about with me in school,” she said. “They knew I was motivated and that I could do it.”

Her former elementary school and Spanish teacher Franklin Fernandez, Jr. describes young Charlyna as a shy but inquisitive student, meticulous with her work, who rarely missed a day of school. She became fluent in Spanish, and competed in the Spanish spelling bee at the state level for five years, twice placing in the top 10 at the national competition. She excelled in math and science and received a Hispanic Heritage Youth Award silver medal in the mathematical science category. The most challenging courses Peñasco High School offers were on her schedule.

A sports injury leads to an interest in medicine

Charlyna played soccer, basketball, and volleyball and ran cross country and track and field. Her determination, commitment, and respect for others made her a natural leader. She earned several athletic honors at district and state levels and was named High School Female Academic Athlete of the Year as a freshman. 

“She’s very special,” said Clarence Vigil, her basketball coach who’s known her since fourth grade. “She’s a role model for the girls and boys through her hard work and dedication.”

As a scholar-athlete, many pursuits have come easily. But Charlyna credits her challenges as the biggest source of strength and opportunity. At a volleyball game sophomore year, Charlyna jumped to hit the ball, landed awkwardly, and fell to the ground with shooting pain in her knee. She was first diagnosed with a dislocated kneecap but when healing didn’t progress, an MRI revealed a torn ACL, ALL, and meniscus. 

The challenge of not being able to play sports equaled the pain she continued to feel through surgery and recovery. Charlyna also worried about the financial hardship on her family from medical bills that their insurance did not cover.

“That was definitely a rough time. But my parents told me to never quit,” she recalls. “In sixth grade I wanted to quit cross country. My mom gave me three days off and said, ‘If you quit now, you’ll never go back.’” Charlyna is glad she continued with the sport that she grew to love and also finds it hard to believe that she once hated science. 

With that same spirit of perseverance, she dug deeper into academics. She read more and strengthened her commitment to become a doctor. 

“My injury made me want to find out more about it. I did a ton of research at the time. Why did this happen to me? Why are women more susceptible to knee injuries?”

She saw firsthand how easy it is to make a misdiagnosis if key information is overlooked or when needed equipment is not readily available. She saw the importance of the human side of doctors too. 

“I asked my doctor a lot of questions and I was kind of a baby with the pain,“ she laughs. “It made me understand how patient doctors have to be with their patients.” 

That was also the first year a dual-credit program with Northern New Mexico College was offered free to Peñasco students. Charlyna took full advantage of college-level courses to enrich her interests and put her on track to study medicine and research. She took English, history, mechanical engineering, speech, applied physics, biology, chemistry, sociology, psychology, human anatomy, nutrition, and philosophy. Her grandfather drove her to and from classes and encouraged her academic pursuits in math and science.

Her parents were also a huge support academically and helped to pay for lab fees and other college expenses. She was able to save the money she had earned from a summer internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Neutron Science Center, LANSCE. 

Attending rehab meant frequently missing school, so she worked extra hard to keep her grades up. She showed her support at cross country meets and helped with basketball and track and field from the sidelines. She asked Coach Vigil to open the school gym afterhours so she could train in the weight room. She was told that after recovery, chances were slim that she would reach anything close to her prior athletic ability, but that didn’t stop her. 

After a year out of sports and a lot of hard work, Charlyna tentatively returned to the basketball team. Running was difficult, and her confidence was low with fear of injury. She took it slowly for the first few games, but by mid-season she was back. Track and field and cross country came next. She wasn’t used to coming in last place but kept at it and progressed.

Charlyna says she is now an even better athlete than before, stronger physically and mentally. Watching others compete gave her a different perspective of each sport that she could apply to her own performance.

“I’m proud of how far I’ve come after my injury. Winning the State Championship with my team in Cross Country was a huge accomplishment.” She was again named High School Female Academic Athlete of the Year. She credits everyone who helped her along the way.

Scholarship eases financial burden and demonstrates community support 

Charlyna is the first in her family to complete a college degree, having already earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts from Northern before graduating High School. Charlyna will continue on to Colby College in Maine to study biomedical engineering and physics with the help of a $20,000 Gold Scholarship—the top award—from the Los Alamos Employees’ Scholarship Fund. LAESF Scholarships support students from seven Northern New Mexico Counties pursuing undergraduate degrees and are made possible by donations from Los Alamos National Laboratory employees and LANS.

She is thankful that she has such a strong foundation that has encouraged her opportunity and enthusiasm to flow. With the scholarship, she now has the Lab and the LANL Foundation as part of system of support. She plans on returning to work at the Lab during college breaks. 

This young leader is reluctant to admit that she’s an inspiration to others, but her grandfather and mentors think otherwise.

“Charlyna had the drive to become a doctor, and her parents were always there to back here up, which is vital to succeed,” said Mr. Fernandez. “She has our culture, the biggest asset in our community. She didn’t let her injury hold her back,” added Coach Vigil.

They both want all students to be inspired to continue higher learning along their own path, with the understanding that not everyone will go to college. Charlyna shares that vision. 

“I know students could do so much better if someone would open their eyes to something different, beyond what they see and feel comfortable with,” she said. “I definitely want to come back after college. I’ve thought about the possibility of starting my own practice here. We need doctors in smaller communities like this.”

Through her scholarship and internship, Charlyna feels honored to be associated with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, an organization that she describes as being “of great importance, not only to this country, but also to the students and communities of New Mexico.”

“This scholarship will allow me to focus on my academics and help to minimize any financial burdens along the way. Most importantly, the scholarship will provide me with a boost of support from those who generously contribute to this prestigious scholarship fund. Thank you LANL, for having a positive outlook on the abilities and futures of your students and this great country.”

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