This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Diana Mejia first enrolled at the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center in 2011, shortly after she emigrated from Mexico to the United States.
She started by taking English classes before working toward a high school diploma through the alternative high school's adult-education program.
Today, 46-year-old Mejia is a student at Salt Lake Community College, where she was recently accepted into the occupational-therapy assistant program.
"To have an associate [degree] is very important to me," she said. "I want to contribute to society."
Despite moving on to higher education, Mejia isn't quite cut off from her high school program. She's one of several recipients of a unique scholarship, offered through Horizonte, that covers up to 75 percent of her costs for tuition, fees and books at SLCC.
The financial assistance has made it possible for her to go to college, she said, something she didn't think was possible five years ago.
"I never felt that it could be a reality," she said. "I'm living my dream."
The alternative high school is part of the Salt Lake City School District and has a history of partnering with Salt Lake Community College to transition students into higher education.
But over the past two years, administrators at Horizonte have worked to expand its scholarship offerings which are already unique for a public high school to include adults.
"When you talk about scholarships and foundations and opportunities, there's so much that exists for the youth," Horizonte principal Joshua Bell said. "We get a lot of students who are 18 [and older], who don't have access to those same opportunities."
The scholarship program is supported by an endowment of more than $600,000, as well as donations from community entities like the Eccles Foundation, American Express and the Mexican Consulate, according to fundraiser Kimball Young.
During 2016, the school awarded 78 adult scholarships, ranging from a few hundred dollars to roughly $2,000, Young said.
And to qualify, he said, a student need only earn their diploma and be admitted to SLCC's academic or applied technology programs.
"It's open to everybody and there's no competition or subjectivity involved," he said. "If you graduate and qualify for college, then you have a scholarship on a first-come, first-served basis."
Originally, the scholarships covered 100 percent of higher education costs. But the offerings were scaled back to allow more students to participate and to encourage recipients to invest in their education, Young said.
That change caught Olivia Aholelei, 21, midway through her health information technology courses at SLCC and was nearly enough to make her throw in the towel.
"I almost walked out of the office and just quit the whole program," she said.
Aholelei said she decided to keep working toward her certification after talking to an advisor at Horizonte and attending an orientation meeting for new scholarship recipients.
"I saw the other kids in there, how happy they were just to pay 25 percent," she said. "I felt like I was being a brat. If they can do it, then I can do it."
Kevin Miller, assistant director of outreach and access for Salt Lake Community College, described the adult scholarship program as an "evolution" of Horizonte's efforts to encourage enrollment in higher education.
Both schools are focused on underrepresented populations, Miller said, and in many cases, Horizonte students are looking for a second chance.
"One of the things those adults come to school with is a dedication and a drive," he said. "They understand the value of an education."
At most high schools, Bell said, the focus is on graduation. But Horizonte students, he said, have intentionally gone back to school in order to end up somewhere else, and the school's efforts are aimed at getting them there.
"We prepare students for whatever it is they want to do next," he said.
For Santi Parajuli, a 22-year-old Bhutanese refuge from Nepal, the end goal is to become a network engineer.
He expects to complete his computer science program at SLCC this summer and transfer to Weber State University to study network management technology.
He said the steps he's taken would have been near-impossible without his scholarship from Horizonte.
"I was a little bit worried about how I was going to do college," he said. "But having this help, it gave me great hope to go to school."