Financial assistance is a start, but mentoring and academic guidance are also key components to success.

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Yarelly Gomez is a program manager in cybersecurity at Microsoft. She’s a graduate of the University of Washington Bothell, and in 2015 the website GeekWire named her a “Geek of the Week.” But she’s also a first-generation college graduate (along with her brother.) She grew up in Sunnyside, Washington, the daughter of parents who rose each morning at the crack of dawn to pick everything from cherries to asparagus.

Many Washington high school students believe college isn’t for them but is instead reserved for a privileged few. And making it to college is just the first hurdle. Once there, some students find pursuing a degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) or health care field is even more daunting. The textbooks cost more, the classes are more rigorous – it can feel to students that anything less than perfect means they won’t be advancing to the next level – and it causes some students to pursue what might be considered “safe” degrees.

In fact, when Gomez got to UW Bothell, she knew she was interested in science, but had no idea where to begin.

“I had no idea what the process was to get into what you wanted to do. It might sound naive, but I really thought if I said, ‘this is what I want,’ I could just do it. It wasn’t until I got there that I realized everything required several prerequisites to even get into a program,” Gomez says.

It’s a common scenario, according to Naria Santa Lucia, executive director for the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship.

“WSOS students are ones that would normally thrive as an engineer but didn’t have a single person in their life who knew what that career meant; the uncle who is a doctor or the aunt who works at Boeing,” she says.

Gomez spent her freshman year taking general coursework and ended up getting a job at the IT Center on campus, sparking an interest in computer science and programming. That summer she went home and worked with kids interested in STEM fields. She also applied for and was awarded a WSOS scholarship.

Sophomore year she came back to Bothell confident enough to start taking computer science classes but needed a little push.

“I did want to pursue programming, but I didn’t think I could do it with the resources that I had because financially it was very, very tricky. CSS being such a difficult major I was really scared that if I failed that was going to be it – there wasn’t going to be any more chances,” she says.

However, as a WSOS scholar, the money from the scholarship allowed Gomez to breathe easier when it came to making rent each month, which in turn allowed her to spend more time studying instead of getting a second job. Her grades reflected the extra time spent studying.

Additionally, part of WSOS is a mentoring program – both from peers and people in the industry — turning cold job applications into what Santa Lucia calls “a warm handoff.”

“Our industry mentors are not there to give them a job – they’re there to help coach the student through the interview process, make introductions to other people they might know,” Santa Lucia says.

For Gomez, that person was Theresa Britschgi, a placement director with WSOS. Not only did Britschgi tap her to speak at a STEM summit, she pushed her to apply for various internships.

“The biggest thing she did was provide me with opportunity to apply for an internship at Microsoft. She sent me the application and said ‘you really need to apply for this, it’s right up your alley.’ I didn’t believe I would get it, just because of where I came from and it was just so unfamiliar to me,” Gomez says.

Gomez got the internship and says that “there’s no way I would actually be working full time at Microsoft right now if it wasn’t for WSOS and all the opportunities they provided me.”

Gomez is a WSOS success story, but she’s not the only one. According to a recent annual report looking back at the last five years, WSOS found that 61 percent of their most recently awarded cohort are women, 65 percent are students of color, and 65 percent are the first in their family to go to college. Even better, 94 percent of the WSOS students are employed in their field or attending graduate school.

“Public-private partnerships like this can remove barriers to higher education and provide a path from our schools to the Washington state workforce,” says WSOS Board Chair and Microsoft President Brad Smith. “Since 2011, the WSOS has seen success not just based on numbers, but in the lives of first-generation and under-represented youth like Yarelly.”

“The data confirms our state and industry leaders made a smart investment when we came together to build this scholarship program,” Gov. Jay Inslee says. “The success we’ve achieved here in Washington should be scaled up and taken across the nation. We are closing the opportunity gap in STEM fields for women, students of color and low-income students while building a pipeline of talent tailored to the needs of our state’s leading industries.”

Working collaboratively with the state and industry partners, the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship aims to connect our state’s leading industries with top Washington talent by reducing barriers to education and training and facilitating entry into high-demand careers for Washington students.