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Scholarship will help youngest of 12 headed to Univ. of Iowa

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SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) — The youngest in a family of 12 children and the only sibling born in the United States, Crystal Luna knew she had to make the most out of every opportunity presented to her.

Not only was Luna’s family depending on her, but she also wanted to live out her own version of the American dream.

On April 28, the 18-year-old soon-to-be North High School graduate received a $40,000 scholarship from the Kind World Foundation. It’s the highest monetary post-secondary award the local nonprofit group annually presents.

“Receiving this scholarship means so much to me,” Luna explained. “It says all of my hard work was worthwhile.”

Since 2009, the Kind World Foundation, founded by former Gateway executive Norm Waitt Jr., has awarded more than $3 million to hundreds of high school seniors from eight metro high schools: Sioux City East, North, West and Bishop Heelan; South Sioux City; Dakota Valley; Sergeant Bluff - Luton; and Elk Point-Jefferson.

Luna plans to use her scholarship to study Spanish and International Business at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. After that, she wants to go to law school, specializing in immigration law.

“Crystal had to mature at a very early age, had personally gone through so much, and still wants to help other people,” Kind World Foundation scholarship and education program chairman Marcia Waitt explained. “Our program was created specifically for deserving students like Crystal.”

Luna acquired a strong work ethic from her mom Yolanda Nava who, herself, had to leave school after the fifth grade.

“My mom worked on her family’s farm in Mexico before coming to America,” Luna said. “My parents divorced when I was five years old, and life became even more difficult.”

Indeed, Luna spent many years living in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with her 11 siblings.

“Most of us kids slept on the floor,” she remembered. “I felt like a princess the year that I got a new Care Bear blanket.”

Still, Luna’s mom worked 16 hours a day to ensure her family had a roof over their heads and food on the table.

“When mom went to work, my older sister took care of me,” Luna said. “Plus I became self-sufficient on my own.”

This was often difficult for Luna, who felt insecure due to her accent.

“Half of my family spoke only Spanish while the other half spoke both Spanish and English,” she said. “It was awkward.”

Soon, the pressure got to Luna.

“I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression when I was 12,” she said. “My family didn’t understand mental illness, so I oversaw taking my medication and found transportation to therapy on my own.”

In fact, the only place Luna felt comfortable was at school.

“I loved school because I loved learning,” she said.

It was also a place where Luna would receive positive reinforcement for her studying.

“At school, I was the girl who was always smiling, with her nose stuck in a book,” Luna said.

Yet she knew very few people understood the difficulties of a first generation student.

“Neither my mom nor my dad spoke English,” Luna said. “They didn’t know anything about college savings accounts or building credit. When you don’t speak the language, everything seems daunting and out of reach.”

That was why she became involved with Briar Cliff University’s TRIO Student Support Services, a U.S. Department of Education-funded program which serves and advocates on behalf of first generation students who were often underrepresented in higher education.

“TRIO allowed me to think about college years before I could attend,” she said. “It made me want to plan for the future.”

However, sometimes life can throw you for a loop. That happened, last year, when Luna’s dad died unexpectedly.

“Losing a parent is horrible,” she said. “Something like that can discourage you from schoolwork or everyday life. But I wouldn’t let that happen to me.”

Instead, Luna concentrated on her work with the North High School student council and the National Honors Society, while becoming a 4.0 honor student.

“When you’re born to immigrant parents, you often have to work harder to get ahead,” she said. “You want to become a role model.”

Luna still gets emotional more than a week after she was selected for the Kind World Foundation scholarship.

“It was so moving and so encouraging for me,” she said.

Cheering her on every step of the way was Luna’s mom Yolanda Nava.

“My mom was so happy and that made me happy,” Luna said.

Reflecting for a moment, Luna recalled feeling bad because of her own accent.

“Now, I am so proud of my accent as it signifies my challenges in learning a new language,” she explained. “Everything that I’ve gone through has made me stronger and has made me the person I am today.”

As she looks towards the future, Luna has advice for first generation students like herself.

“Work hard, study hard, get involved with your community and never stop learning,” she said with a smile. “That way, you can create your own American dream.”

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