Ibana Delgado placed a stack of neatly folded clothes in a cardboard box in her El Paso bedroom as she packed for a 10-hour drive to Houston.
Among her belongings, the most important item Delgado packed was a family photo — a reminder of why she's making this big move to continue her education alone in Texas' largest city.
The first generation-college student is attending Rice University, one of the nation's top universities, this fall after winning first place in a state and national essay competition and receiving more than $800,000 in scholarship money.
As part of a class project for her senior-year economics class at the Young Women's Leadership Academy, Delgado crafted an essay about the importance of investing and financial literacy.
Not expecting to place in the InvestWrite competition, she placed first in Texas and third nationally.
"I've also been reflecting a lot about what I've learned, and I've been really rereading my essay a lot," Delgado said. "And it brings a smile to my face, knowing that I learned so much from this game."
Over 10 weeks, student groups invested a hypothetical $100,000 portfolio in stocks, bonds, mutual funds and exchange-traded funds. By the end, the team members who managed to build the most portfolio value won, said Melanie Mortimer, president of the SIFMA Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.
After completing the project, students wrote about their experience and how the concepts they learned will benefit their future.
Her essay was chosen through an anonymous online system of financial professionals who looked at three categories when choosing a winner, Mortimer said. Judges looked at how well the essay was organized, how the students showed knowledge in researching and planning an investment strategy and the students' creativity in writing style.
"You don't have to be in your 40s to understand what investing is," Mortimer said. "And Ibana is the perfect example of that."
Pete Bralich, Delgado's history teacher from YWLA, said she was focused on excelling. As she made her way through high school, he said he learned how important education was to Delgado and her family.
"She wants this for her family," he said. "Her family is young, Latina girls. It's girls from El Paso,"
The love of family pushed her to succeed
Longtime residents of Ciudad Juárez, Claudia Figueroaand Javier Delgado, moved to El Paso about 20 years ago to provide their children a better opportunity for life.
Delgado is the first child in her family to attend college. Her older sister, Ingrid Delgado, 28, didn't attend college. Her younger sister, Ileane, 15, is still in high school. Her parents said it was important for their children to attend college since they didn't have the opportunity because they had to work.
"Education will make you a better person, and you will have a better future for yourself," Javier Delgado said.
The pair worked in construction for over 20 years. Though Delgado never felt the effects of their financial struggle, she knew how hard her parents worked to provide her and her sisters with a comfortable life.
Seeing them come home exhausted from work motivated her to keep pushing in school so that one day she could provide them a comfortable life.
Delgado's parents said they always knew their daughter was intelligent. As a young child, she would never want to miss a day of school, even for doctor's appointments. She was the top student in each class she attended.
At their home, Delgado's parents, speaking in Spanish, described what makes their daughter successful.
"She is very responsible. If she starts something she'll be super committed to what she's gonna do," Ingrid Delgado, acting as a translator for her parents, said. "Once she starts something, she'll finish it. She'll set her mind on it, and there's no going back."
Hard work paid off
Delgado secured her future in education by receiving over $800,000 in scholarship money, most of the funds coming from the Gates Scholarship Program and the National College Match.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, according to its website, aims to continue "a long-standing commitment to helping outstanding minority students who come from low-income backgrounds realize their maximum potential."
The Gates Scholarship describes its ideal candidate with an outstanding academic record who demonstrates leadership ability and exceptional personal success.
"There were a lot of essays that I had to write, and then interviews that I had to keep up with," Delgado said. "It was a lot of work, but it paid off at the end. So I'm grateful."
Aside from being valedictorian in her class, Delgado was president of the rugby team and was a member of programs like the Academic Decathlon, High-Q, National Honor Society and Advanced Placement courses.
Bralich described Delgado in one word: determined.
"I think she feels a responsibility for her family now, 'I did it, I got into Rice. And there's other girls behind me, I'm gonna break open this door, I'm gonna kick it open. And I'm gonna make sure that others like me can follow,'" he said.
Overcoming feelings of intimidation
Delgado started the fall semester this week at Rice, where she is studying computer science.
Inspired by her background, Delgado hopes to have a career in technology that focuses on helping people who live in a lower-economic status.
Though having accumulated many academic credentials during six-week-long freshman orientation at Rice, Delgado felt intimidated for the first time while visiting the campus.
She quelled the feelings of imposter syndrome with the confidence her scholarship recognition gave her.
"No, you earned your spot as a student there,'" Delgado recalled thinking. "It really made me happy."
Delgado encourages students in the El Paso community to learn about financial literacy and to take their education seriously.
Bralich said Delgado represents everything her family has sacrificed for her, and she takes that to heart.
As Delgado's mom watched her pack away her clothes, she said it felt bittersweet.
"We are very proud of her (Delgado's) achievements and we know she will accomplish more in the future," Figueroa said.
'No, you earned your spot': El Paso's Ibana Delgado realizing academic successes
The love of family pushed her to succeed