ALBANY — For Emily Meneses, getting into college was a matter of faith. And for the devout Catholic, that belief was realized with a full scholarship to the University of Notre Dame.
Emily’s father, Jorge, a native of Ecuador, didn’t finish high school, and her mother, Ana Maria, finished only two years of a four-year degree, so Emily’s accomplishment is particularly sweet.
She has already completed requirements for a two-year degree at Albany State University and will graduate in a class consisting of just herself in the first graduation ceremony at St. Teresa’s Catholic School in April. The decision to leave Lee County High School — where her 16-year-old brother, JeanCarlo, is a sophomore — was a tough one, Emily said.
A running joke is that she completed college before graduating from high school.
“I wanted to go to St. Teresa’s because of my faith,” Emily said. “I did not just embrace my faith, but became a person of faith.”
As a student of modest means and a solid but not perfect SAT score, Emily said she was not sure if she could get accepted into a top-tier school, a goal she has held for years.
“Harvard was my top one: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown,” she said. “I knew for a fact (at) Harvard only 6 or 7 percent out of 40,000 applicants get in.”
Then she heard about QuestBridge.
The nonprofit helps low-income students through the process of applying for and entering top universities. The organization assisted Emily with the application process. She also had to write a detailed essay and provide financial information.
Also assisting was her Albany State professor, Steven Preston, and a teacher at St. Teresa’s.
“My theology teacher, Mrs. Danielle DeMott, to me she was probably one of the only people to say: ‘You can do this. I believe in you.,” Emily said.
After the hard work of completing the essay was over, Emily said she sent it on Sept. 6 and anxiously awaited the next step. On Oct. 16, she learned she was a finalist.
“Then I had until Nov. 1 to submit applications for colleges I ranked,” she said.
Finalists could list up to 12 institutions, but Emily chose seven, including Brown, Notre Dame and Amherst.
“Once again, Mrs. DeMott was here,” she said. “She said: ‘You’re going to do this.’”
Emily had visited Notre Dame during a summer enrichment program and was excited about how the Catholic school encapsulated her faith.
“I got to know the campus,” she said. “I said ‘this really feels nice, I just don’t know if I’ll fit in.’”
On Dec. 2, Emily and her family anxiously awaited the news of whether she would be accepted and, if so, where. The announcements were scheduled for 4 p.m.
“I kept refreshing my portal” waiting for the email, she said.
After some time went by, Emily said she decided to wait before checking again, but her mother insisted that she check one more time.
“I clicked it,” she said. “All I saw was a banner at the top that said: ‘Congratulations!’ I started crying. I screamed. I clicked and it said: ‘Notre Dame.’ I felt a great wave of happiness, getting into a great institution and a Catholic institution. God didn’t want me to go to an Ivy League (school).”
Afterward, Emily learned that DeMott had been exerting her influence in another way.
“She told me she’d secretly been praying it would be Notre Dame,” Emily said. “(Attending Notre Dame) just means such a blessing for me as a Catholic. I never dreamed I would get into a quality institution like this, never mind one that encompasses my faith. I was blessed.”
So Emily had been accepted, but there was the little detail of how to pay for a university education.
At that point, she knew she didn’t want to acquire the debt Notre Dame would entail and started looking closer to home at places like Georgia State University and the University of Georgia.
She learned of E-advisors, a program that helps connect students with scholarships. Meneses qualified for a $40,000 annual scholarship that will pay for her education through four years.
“Everything’s paid for, so I’m really happy about that, as we’re not the wealthiest family around,” she said.
Emily said she plans to major in theology and psychology. For now she is not sure how she will pay for post-graduate studies, but she said she hopes to use her education to help others, perhaps by combining faith and clinical counseling.
For Jorge Meneses, the feeling is bittersweet. He knows that August 2020, when his daughter will leave for South Bend, Ind., will come too soon, But he also is proud of his daughter. He also was the first to leave his family, a longer journey to New Jersey than his daughter’s to South Bend.
“Since she was a little kid, she was really smart, always reading a book or studying,” Jorge Meneses said, visibly embarrassing his daughter seated next to him. “All the certificates, since kindergarten, a lot of certificates.
“I don’t want her to go away. Since I did not have the same choice (for an education), I had no choice but to let her go to be someone in the world.”
He said he will miss her for the four years she is away at school.
“I’ll come back” during that time, she said. “It won’t be four years.”
Jorge Meneses said he also was proud that Emily had done the research to find organizations to help make her dreams reality.
She pointed again to a higher power. At another university, she believes, there would have been secular influences that would not have been positive for her.
“I think the reason I got in was basically my faith,” she said. “I do a lot with my church. I’m not doing it just to serve here and abandon it (or) just to look good on my application. I want to continue that in college.”