Karen V.'s Story

“I am so lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to get my feet wet with knowledge over the past four years.”

When she was 8 years old, Karen Villarroel and her parents emigrated from Bolivia to the United States, leaving behind her father’s successful career in the Bolivian Air Force and her mother’s Master’s level education. Despite their hard work, it was difficult for her parents to build a comfortable life and secure savings in Bolivia, so they took a chance in the U.S.

The family’s first American home consisted of a single room with one bed, where they slept side by side. Over the years, Karen’s parents worked hard to send their only child to a high school with a unique biotechnology focus in a neighborhood far from their own in Woodbridge, VA. Karen excelled at this school, but often felt that she did not fit in as the only Hispanic girl in her advanced calculus class and the only one in her school whose family seemed to be struggling. “No one knew what it meant to have nothing,” says Karen.

When it came time to apply for college, Karen remembered a QuestBridge certificate she had seen hanging on a classroom wall in freshman year. Her teacher had recommended another student to QuestBridge and encouraged her to apply to the National College Match. When she opened the application, she was surprised by how many questions asked about her challenges as a high-achieving, low-income student. She had not realized that colleges pay attention to students like her, and was proud that the things that mattered most, like her family, Bolivian heritage, and hardships as an immigrant, were being acknowledged.

While Karen was not matched through QuestBridge, she used her application to gain admission to Washington and Lee University, where she won the Johnson Scholarship to support the full cost of her tuition, room and board. “Social norms are the way they are sometimes, but how you look at them can change,” says Karen. Instead of trying to fit in, she wants to share her experience and empower others to do the same.

The summer before her sophomore year, Karen was invited to give a presentation on higher education opportunities for low-income students at her high school, where she thought she was the only one whose family needed financial assistance to pay for college. Visiting her old school, Karen saw a poster in the counselor’s office with her picture and a header identifying her as the Johnson Scholarship recipient from W&L giving a presentation on college access. Confronted by the evidence of just how far she has come, Karen felt proud of her accomplishments. 

Karen was recently accepted into the Loyola Stritch School of Medicine, and is excited for the opportunity to attend medical school next year. Senior year has been a challenge – juggling classes, her research presentation at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and interviews for medical school. However, Karen believes that she has learned a great deal about time management through her hard work. 

Looking forward, Karen says, “There is so much to learn and I am so lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to get my feet wet with knowledge over the past four years.”