By BRANDON LaCHANCE
MENDOTA – When Carlos Olivas was thinking about his future after high school, the Mendota High School senior already knew what he wanted to pursue.
Instead of waiting for an education or career path to open itself to him, with the encouragement and support of his mother, he made sure he put in the hard work to clear the path himself.
“Ever since I was young, even as far back as 3- or 4-years old, my mother, Natasha Lemus, has always pushed me,” Olivas said. “She has told me, ‘College is the way of having a better life.’ We’ve always been low income, poor, and I’ve pushed myself. I try to view it as a mark of pride saying despite the disadvantages of being a low-income or poor student, I’m still able to excel.
“It’s something that I’m proud of. Everything that I’ve worked for through all of these years paid off. I’ve sacrificed a lot of my free time to work on my grades and now it’s all worth it. I had already planned to pursue computer science at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, but it’s a really selective program.
“I was going to go for one of the sister schools – University of Illinois Chicago or University of Illinois Springfield. It feels very rewarding to get a scholarship like this to go to college.”
Through many years of skipping hangouts with friends or walking past a video game controller to pick up a book, study, or work on a project, Olivas had developed an excellence in academics.
The QuestBridge program and the University of Chicago recognized Olivas’ intelligence and desire to push through disadvantages for an education and rewarded him with the QuestBridge Match Scholarship, valued at over $342,000, to study computer science.
“For the QuestBridge Match Scholarship, you have to apply to become a QuestBridge scholar, which you have to fill out paperwork – basically another FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) – specifically for the QuestBridge program,” Olivas said. “If you’re selected, they push you out to become a QuestBridge finalist.
“The match scholarship, the one I was awarded, is for low income students that excel academically and are matched with schools that you rank on a form. You rank 15 schools and fill out applications individually for each school. You have 2 ½-3 weeks to fill out all of them. If you’re selected by one of those schools, that’s the school that will give you a scholarship.
“I was rejected by my top five schools including Stanford University, Yale University, Brown University, Rice University, but I was accepted by my sixth choice, University of Chicago.”
Not only did Olivas put studying and schoolwork at the top of his priority list, he made sure staying involved in school activities was next on the list.
Over his four years, Olivas has been part of the Mendota High School band program, cross country, ILMEA (Illinois Music Education Association), track, scholastic bowl, and the tech support team.
Scott Siri, the MHS technology director, has worked with Olivas during the last few school years and has seen Olivas’ character, determination, and intellect in action.
“His technical skills are great. He is a special kid even besides his technical skills. He has a technical mind, but on top of that, he is patient with people when a lot of teenagers wouldn’t be that patient,” said Siri, who has his tech support team help him with repairs and special projects including fixing Chromebooks. “Carlos is inclusive of other kids in ways that other teenagers wouldn’t be. He has a social tenderness where he understands there are nuances about things where other teenagers are very self-focused.”
Siri added Olivas pays attention to all details.
If there is something wrong with a machine or another part would be a better fit to make a machine work better, Olivas will figure out the solution.
“We have a long-term drone project and he was one of my initial kids that were on the ground floor of the drone,” Siri said. “He helped put together some of the basics. He has less time to work on it now that he is a senior and is involved in other stuff, but he was in on the ground floor.
“He picked out parts and made sure what we already had was compatible with what we were ordering. He did a lot of the piecing together.”
It makes sense Olivas wants to study computer science.
The future specification for a degree major at the University of Chicago became a thought because Olivas heard computer science was a good degree and there would always be job openings.
Then it became a hobby, a passion, and something he wants to do; not just because he could pay the bills.
Plus, it’ll make his mother proud.
“My mother always supported me. She always told me, ‘You can do anything you want’ or ‘You got this’ or ‘Don’t quit,’” said Olivas, who’s ultimate goal is to be a software designer. “She would get mad if I ever had bad grades, but she always expected me to get A’s and I expected that of myself as well.
“Having that reinforcement left a positive impact on me.”