By Vicki Hildner
At first glance, it seems as if Jayden Tumbaga, a four sport athlete from Kenai, Alaska and Kelsey Estes, a self-confessed Trekkie from Denver, Colorado could not be more different.
But both these top-notch students have survived medical crises and overcome seemingly insurmountable financial challenges to join the University of Colorado Denver's class of 2015.
Kelsey Estes hopes to bring the combined logic and emotion of her Star Trek hero, Mr. Spock, to a career as an emergency room physician. Her parents kid that she decided to become a doctor when, as an infant, she spent weeks in the hospital after contracting spinal meningitis But one year ago, Kelsey could not see how she would ever make it to college, much less to medical school .
"I had always been a happy-go-lucky kid," Kelsey remembers. "Then worrying about money became a full-time occupation not just for my parents, but also for me."
During Kelsey's sophomore year at Evergreen High School, her father lost his business and her mother lost the majority of her business. They tried to keep the family in their house by exhausting their life savings, including Kelsey's college fund. Ultimately, they lost the family home in a foreclosure. "It was their dream house," Kelsey recalls, "the place they planned to live in the rest of their lives. And then it was just gone."
Forced to move, Kelsey found herself living in a rental house in Denver and attending Jefferson High School. "I was starting my senior year," she says, "and I didn't have a single friend at school."
But she did have Lisa Moore, a caring high school counselor, who found out about her family's financial struggle and suggested Kelsey apply for a Daniels Fund Scholarship, awarded to promising students who demonstrate character and a determination to succeed in life. By now, Kelsey's father was working as a mechanic, but she remembers "there was no question this scholarship was my only shot to get to college."
Without even knowing how she would pay for her education, Kelsey submitted applications to schools across the country, including Yale and CSU. But CU Denver caught and kept her attention because of the BA/BS-MD program. Kelsey still becomes emotional when she remembers her counselor calling her out of class and showering her with confetti made with a three hole punch.
"She told me I had won the Daniels Scholarship. She was crying. I started crying. When I sat down, I missed the chair and landed on the floor. And then we both started to laugh.
"I went home and told my parents I would be going to college. As long as I live, I will never forget the look of pure relief on their faces."
Kelsey's fellow freshman, Jayden Tumbaga, was born more than 3,000 miles from CU Denver, on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. He spent the first two years of his life in the hospital, undergoing multiple surgeries to repair congenital anomalies. "If you want to know the details," he laughs, "you will have to ask my mom."
When Jayden was four, the family decided to move. "My parents wanted to go to a place where they thought there would be more opportunities," he says, "so we went from Molokai to Alaska." The family settled in Kenai, three hours from Anchorage. "It's not what you're thinking," Jayden is quick to point out. "We even have a Walmart."
Seven years ago, as his parents drove to watch his older brother in a wrestling match, their car skidded on black ice and hit a tree. Jayden's father broke his neck in two places and he sustained a traumatic brain injury, followed by a stroke.
Today, Jayden's father uses a walker. He has problems with short term memory. He cannot swallow, so he needs a feeding tube. Although he was not yet a teenager at the time of the accident, Jayden has helped care for his father since he was injured. That experience got him thinking. "I decided I would go into the medical field," he says, "to help people like my father."
At Nikiski High School, Jayden played football, soccer, basketball and wrestled. "Playing sports was my coping mechanism," he admits. "It was a way to clear all my worries out of my mind." When he was ready to apply to college, he had one school on the list: University of Colorado Denver. "I had been to Denver a couple times and I liked the city," he says. "I researched career choices and decided that I would have potential for a good job as a pharmacist. And CU Denver has a great School of Pharmacy."
With a combination of financial aid offered through the Western Undergraduate Exchange, a Denver Bound scholarship and some local Alaska scholarships, Jayden's family can afford to send him to college.
"I will miss the country life of Alaska," he says, "but I'm ready to see how I do in the big city. And the most important thing is that with my degree, I will be able to take care of my family."