For Melissa Ramirez, college used to be just a dream.
In a family yet to receive a diploma past high school, her goal to become the first to graduate from college was a worthy but difficult challenge.
Thanks to the Tampa bay Buccaneers, however, Ramirez is now one step closer to making her dream – and that of her entire family – come true.
The Middleton High School senior was one of 10 high school students invited to One Buccaneer Place on Wednesday to receive a $1,000 scholarship from the team, presented by Head Coach Raheem Morris following the a morning OTA practice. Ramirez appreciated both the visit and the helping hand in achieving her goal.
"The Buccaneers are from Tampa Bay so they are like our home and our team," Ramirez said. "So it's great that they can help other Tampa Bay students achieve in life and school."
Ramirez was joined by nine other Hillsborough County seniors: Hilario Cabrera (Leto), Alyssa Carson (Alonso), Raidel Martinez (Jefferson), Amber Mirajkar (King), Brett Palaschak (Spoto), Fernanda Pierre (Hillsborough), Brandon Proctor (Gaither), Cesar Rodriguez (Lennard) and Deena Wang (Robinson). The students were accompanied by Hillsborough County Public School Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, Assistant Superintendent Gwen Luney and other school representatives for the special presentation at One Buccaneer Place.
More than 100 Hillsborough County students submitted essays and applications explaining their need for the scholarship, which was created to assist students accepted by a college but in need of additional financial assistance. Each recipient was selected from a district committee of local school officials overseeing college/career services, guidance counseling, student services and ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages).
On Wednesday, Coach Morris awarded the 10 selected students with a check and a brand new backpack compliments of the Buccaneers. The financial assistance will help the students with needs such as new computers, room and board deposits, additional scholarship applications and other incidental costs for school.
"Tuition wise, [as well as] with books and classes, it will help tremendously," said Ramirez, who will attend Florida State University in the fall. "Financial aid is helping me a little bit, but this scholarship it will complete the package."
Many of Wednesday's recipients have excelled in the classroom while overcoming challenges outside of school. One student's parents are incarcerated, so he has been achieving his high school diploma while living with a different family member. Another just recently moved to the United States but has worked hard to succeed academically, taking full advantage of the opportunities she was not afforded prior to coming to America.
"Some of those parents do not have those extra dollars, and if they do they have to take something extra away such as food or the electric bill," said Luney. "So for them to have an opportunity not only to receive this assistance but to be in the company of people who generally care about them and love to see that they do well is an awesome experience."
For Morris, who has created a community outreach platform geared towards education, presenting the scholarships on Wednesday was yet another opportunity to make an impact.
"You're talking about giving 10 scholarships away, $1,000 a piece, for anything that they can use that is school-related," said Morris. "Whether it's books or whether it's to further their education, or whatever the case may be, you love it, and the reaction from those [students] is always awesome. We're able to do a bunch of things; we do "Bucs for Books", we do school visits, things of that nature, and that's all because we want to focus on education because I felt that was important."
For the students, the impact was not only felt through the scholarship, but through the experience of receiving it.
"This is probably one of the most memorable occasions that a lot of those students have had in their lifetimes," said Luney. "To go into an NFL facility and be able to meet the coach and see the players and be able to mingle is just an awesome situation."
Mirajkar, a senior at King High School who will attend Rice University, found Wednesday's experience to be surreal.
"You see these people on TV and you feel so distanced from them, but to be out here and be so up close and personal, it was awesome to see that they were just regular people," said Mirajkar. "Coach Raheem Morris was very nice and personable and very fun to be around. He seems like he's a fun guy and it's an honor to meet them and see them practice because not a lot of people get to see that."
In addition to Coach Morris, the King senior left One Buc Place with another new friend: Fernanda Pierre, a senior at Hillsborough High School, who will also attend Rice this fall.
"I thought that I was the only one going to Rice from this area," said Mirajkar. "I'll have to meet new people and make new friends which aren't bad things at all, but it will be nice to have somebody from Tampa that is going there too, so I can use it as a solid foundation."
For Pierre, the experience as a whole was very gratifying.
"I am so grateful for the Buccaneers," said Pierre. "I don't follow football a lot, but I do appreciate the community work that the Bucs do. I am very happy that I and nine other individuals were able to get a little bit of a burden off of paying for college thanks to them."