After escaping El Salvador violence, recent immigrant to Basalt earns scholarship

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Karina Rivas, right, a 2015 graduate of Basalt High School, learns from teacher Leticia Ingram Wednesday that she received a full-tuition scholarship from the University of Phoenix.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

Basalt High School graduate Karina Rivas’ experience Wednesday was a shining example of how America remains the land of opportunity, especially for someone who works as hard as she does.

Rivas was awarded a full-tuition scholarship at the University of Phoenix during a surprise student assembly at the high school. The scholarship will cover the expenses of pursuing her bachelor’s degree.

“I’m really happy. I don’t have the words to explain how I feel now,” a visibly stunned Rivas told about 250 students, teachers and administrators.

After the assembly, Rivas explained how the scholarship can help her achieve a goal. She recalled how she helped care for her ailing grandfather in El Salvador five years ago when she was 15 years old. She decided then she wanted to be a nurse.

Rivas loves caring for the elderly and babies, she said, and generally wants to help people.

“I think that’s a good way,” she said.

The scholarship will pay for her education — just two years after she fled violence in El Salvador and reunited with family in Basalt. She couldn’t speak English at that point, but her determination combined with the compassion and skill of Basalt High School teacher Leticia Ingram and others helped Rivas blossom.

“That’s what life’s about”

Ingram said she could tell Rivas was a good student when she arrived and enrolled in some of Ingram’s classes aimed at students new to the country. Ingram, who speaks Spanish and English, not only helps students with government, U.S. history and English but also helps them adjust to and assimilate into the new culture.

Ingram said Rivas worked tirelessly to learn English — coming to school early, studying during her lunch break and staying after school. She would take handouts written in English and translate them into Spanish at home at night to expand her comprehension.

Rivas flourished under Ingram’s tutelage and was asked to write a letter of recommendation last school year when Basalt High School nominated Ingram as Colorado teacher of the year. Ingram received the lofty recognition — one of the few times a teacher outside the Front Range received it.

Although Rivas graduated in May, Ingram didn’t forget her former student’s kind words about her, and she got a chance to pay it forward. Ingram was in San Antonio attending a meeting of all states’ teachers of the year in January when the University of Phoenix disclosed to the group it wanted their help in selecting a full-tuition scholarship recipient for each state. Ingram recommended Rivas and was thrilled to learn two weeks ago that Rivas was approved.

“She inspires me, so I’m just so excited,” Ingram said. “She taught me what hard work is.”

She said she gained as much as she gave while helping the student.

“That’s what life’s about — helping each other to succeed,” Ingram said.

Scholarship kept as a surprise

Rivas didn’t know she was nominated for the scholarship, let alone that she received it. She is currently attending advanced English classes at Colorado Mountain College to prepare for nursing school, and she’s working multiple jobs.

One of her former teachers at Basalt, Tim McNulty, invited her to speak Wednesday morning to his class of 28 newcomers to the country. She didn’t hesitate to come to talk about the importance of an education and ways to adapt to U.S. culture. When the class was over, McNulty mentioned Ingram was getting recognized and that Rivas should pop into the assembly.

Hidden among the commotion of students was Rivas’ mom, a brother, two of her four sisters and a few nieces and a nephew.

Andy Drotos, executive dean of the University of Phoenix’s College of Education, opened the assembly by announcing that a full-ride scholarship would be awarded. Ingram took the stage to reveal the recipient.

“Today, I get to do one of the coolest things ever,” she said, then announcing that Rivas was getting the scholarship. After the brief assembly, Rivas’ family and boyfriend embraced her in hugs.

Wants to give back

Rivas has the option of taking University of Phoenix classes online, and she indicated she wants to stay in the valley. She has projects in mind to help the Latino community.

Rivas wants to establish an organization or program to assist Latinos who came to Basalt after they were out of school — to help them learn their rights and continue education in English, she said.

She also dreams of finding ways to bring the Anglo and Latino communities closer together.

“We’re the same people,” she said.

Most of all, she wants to give back to her new home.

“I love Colorado,” she said. “I love this place (Basalt). I love this school.”