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Teen mom determined to be more than a statistic

by: MARIAANNA KURTS - Shirley Bravo Gonzalez, pictured with her 2-year-old son Christopher, rejected the stereotype of being a teen parent, not only by continuing her education and maintaining a 3.5 grade point average, but also by being named one of 1,000 minority students nationwide to receive the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which provides full tuition to any university in the United States.Earning a full-tuition scholarship is hard enough, but it’s even harder as a parent.

When Shirley Bravo Gonzalez had a baby at age 15, that didn’t stop her from not only continuing her education, but also achieving the impossible: She has been named one of 1,000 minority students nationwide to receive the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which offers a free ride to any university in the nation.

“I tried my hardest to keep in school, to show it’s still possible,” Shirley said. “I didn’t want to be a statistic. I wanted to prove people wrong that even if I had a baby, I can still be involved.”

It hasn’t been an easy road to graduation, but Shirley is fortunate to have a remarkable support system in her parents, her grandmother and her counselor from Marion County Health Department, Micheen “Mac” Panosh, who has been involved in Shirley’s life since the teen’s pregnancy her sophomore year. At the time, she was the only pregnant student at North Marion High School.

“I lost a lot of friends,” Shirley remembered. “People would just stare at me and everyone was surprised. It was really hard on me. But I wanted to prove that I could still do it.”

And she did, only taking one month off school after having her son, Christopher, and staying caught up with a tutor.

“Risking rejection from her peers, she really rose to the occasion, has actively participated in school and I think that she’s taught her peers the definition of bravery,” Panosh said. “Many times, when someone becomes a teen parent, they think they have to quit their dreams and put their own goals aside. She has shown you can do both.”

Shirley’s family has been more than willing to step in and take care of Christopher, including her grandmother, who watches the 2-year-old on school days.

“Abortion and adoption were not options, so they tried everything they could to support me, even though we’re not wealthy,” she said.

Shirley and her boyfriend broke up soon after the baby’s birth, and now, even though he lives nearby in Woodburn, he’s not very involved in the toddler’s life. Shirley said that’s the hardest part of her struggle as a teen parent.

Despite having responsibilities to her son, Shirley has managed to stay involved in school activities: she participates in Key Club, National Honor Society, Associated Student Body and MEChA (a Hispanic culture club).

Despite her school involvement and gainful employment — she has worked for her uncle’s catering business — Shirley’s time with her son trumps any time for a social life or dating. But she still dreams of the future.

“I want to become a pediatrician,” she said. “I always liked the medical field. When I was little, I liked to play doctor or nurse, and I always liked going to the doctor’s office.”

Although she hasn’t solidified plans for her postgraduate career, Shirley thinks it will be at Western Oregon University, where she will live on campus during the week — “so I can focus on my schoolwork” — but still be near Christopher.

“That will be hard, because I’ve always been there for him,” she admitted. “But I’m doing it for the betterment of both of us.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awards the Gates Millennium Scholarship to 1,000 minority students nationwide. Recipients must maintain a 3.3 GPA or higher and complete an intense application process is rigorous, which includes eight essays and letters from both a recommender and a nominator, the former of which was Panosh on Shirley’s application.

“I think Shirley’s case can show parents that they (teen parents) still need love and support, they need to be told they can still reach their dreams,” Panosh said. “She has always shown a drive, has always been someone who’s good academically and someone who faces adversity. It takes both — family support and drive — to be where she is today. And because of that, I feel Shirley is going to leave the high school better than she found it.”

Shirley also recognized the unwavering support she has received.

“I wanted to prove something, to make my parents proud,” she said. “I’m so thankful for the support of my parents; I don’t know where I’d be without their support.”

But, most of all, she’s proud of what she’s been able to accomplish.

“The main thing I’ve learned is if you want something, put a lot of effort into it,” she said. “I did the impossible: I’m graduating with my class. Now, when my son grows older, I can tell him that I’m able to make it on my own.”