Isla Martinez-Iglesias has come to believe that anything is possible.
But that wasn't the case when Manor College invited her to compete for its presidential scholarship. She didn't think she had a chance. In high school, she doubted she would go to college, believing her family couldn't afford it. The day of the scholarship competition, she had car problems and almost didn't go.
But her parents, Mexican immigrants who work in factory jobs and wanted more for their daughter, insisted. And she won a full-tuition scholarship to the two-year private Catholic college in Jenkintown, where she graduated this spring as valedictorian.
She also recently learned that she was one of two students in Pennsylvania to receive a prestigious full-ride scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to pursue her bachelor's degree in biology at La Salle University.
She'll be graduating debt-free - and even has a chance to renew the scholarship for up to four years of graduate school.
"For this to happen a second time, with a different organization, I thought, 'That's not real,' " said Martinez-Iglesias, 20, of Phoenixville. "This can't happen twice in one person's lifetime."
But it did.
"At this point," she said, "I just stopped doubting that the impossible was possible."
Martinez-Iglesias is one of 75 students in the United States out of 2,300 applicants to receive the Cooke foundation's "undergraduate transfer scholarship," designated for outstanding two-year college students with financial need who are going on for their bachelor's. The scholarship is worth up to $40,000 annually. Lavinia Soliman, of Souderton, also received one. She graduated summa cum laude this spring from Montgomery County Community College with an associate's degree in liberal studies and is going on to Bryn Mawr College in the fall.
The foundation will fund costs not covered by other financial aid, in addition to academic advising, stipends for internships, and study abroad and networking meetings with other Cooke scholars. Martinez-Iglesias will be heading to Virginia this month to meet other scholars.
When Martinez-Iglesias' parents moved to the United States, they intended to earn money and return to Mexico. But they decided they could make a better life for their children in the states. Her mother works at Devault Foods in Malvern and her father at Tech Tube in King of Prussia. They settled in Phoenixville.
After high school, Martinez-Iglesias worked for a year in a yogurt shop, supervising workers who were still in high school.
"It made me see I don't want to be a person out of high school still working in a yogurt shop," she said.
"I didn't think I was college material," she said, even though she did well in high school AP classes.
Her boyfriend encouraged her to try, she said. She was attracted to Manor, a small school with about 750 students, because of its pre-veterinary science program.
There, she said, she found what she lacked in high school: confidence.
"I didn't even realize the potential I had until I went to Manor," she said. "It was because the professors here are invested in your education. Having somebody believe in your abilities - that was really helpful."
The formerly shy young woman said she suddenly felt comfortable taking on leadership roles.
She joined Phi Theta Kappa - the honor society - became president of student government, interned at the Philadelphia Zoo, served as a chemistry tutor, and volunteered through a service organization, raising money for a national wildlife foundation and assisting elderly people so they could remain in their homes.
"From the first week, I knew she was going to be an exceptional student," said Julie Senecoff, program director for the allied health transfer program at Manor. "She's always engaged in class. She asks really good questions. She sets the bar for performance. At the same time, she was very humble, very kind, and well-respected by our faculty."
Martinez-Iglesias is the fourth Jack Kent Cooke scholar at Manor in the last 11 years, Senecoff said. All were immigrants, three of them in the sciences, including Martinez-Iglesias. One went on to get a doctorate at Columbia and the other is in medical school at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Senecoff said.
"It's a very prestigious award and it's really designed to help people just like Isla," Senecoff said. "It makes college affordable for people who are able to do it."
Martinez-Iglesias' career interests have evolved. She now envisions a career in the health field, maybe medical school, she said.
"I would love to be some sort of physician," she said. "That's the dream. That's the ultimate goal."