From looking at her now, no one would guess Jessica Fuertes-De Arcos dealt with academic difficulties in her early years.
Fuertes-De Arcos graduated Friday from Omaha South High Magnet School with a 4.0 GPA and ranked third in her class out of 654 students, all while being active in sports and accumulating more than 150 hours of community service.
Achieving the success that she did was not an easy road. Born with a speech impediment, she struggled in school.
“In school, when teachers called on you to read aloud during class,” she said, “it was kind of hard for me because I couldn’t even read a sentence.”
Fuertes-De Arcos was unable to speak before the age of 3 and often used body language and pointing to communicate with teachers.
She also struggled on standardized tests in elementary school.
“My first couple years were pretty bad,” she said. “I performed really badly.”
Fuertes-De Arcos is one of 14 Nebraska students, including four in the Omaha metro area, to receive the D.J.’s Hero Award, which includes a $10,000 scholarship. The students were honored at a luncheon Wednesday at TD Ameritrade Park.
The D.J.’s Hero Awards are underwritten by David and Peggy Sokol, as well as the Fred Hunzeker family and Terri and Jack Diesing, in memory of D.J. Sokol. D.J. died of cancer in 1999 at the age of 18.
The awards were created to recognize Nebraska high school seniors who exemplify perseverance and selflessness and those who are servant leaders in their communities. Since it began, 172 scholarships have been awarded to students.
Fuertes-De Arcos always knew she wanted to pursue higher education. She will be putting her scholarship to good use when she attends Iowa State University in the fall to pursue a degree in chemical engineering.
A first-generation college student, Fuertes De-Arcos said her motivation stems from her parents.
“My mom sometimes can’t even spell her own name in Spanish. My dad has difficult-to-understand English, and growing up, I had to do a lot of translation,” she said. “My parents are my motivation to succeed.”
She plans to use her degree to engineer 3D-printed food to help low-income families who experience food insecurity and hunger.
“With the pandemic and stuff, the food pantries have been overwhelmed,” she said. “It made me want to do something about it. It’s not just in underdeveloped countries, it’s also happening in developed countries like the United States. We still have the issue of global food insecurity, and it’s happening across the whole world.”
Ana Lopez-Zurita, another student from Omaha South, Amariyon Green from Creighton Prep and Andra Williams from Omaha North are the three other metro-area students to receive the award.
“I just still can’t believe I got (the scholarship),” Fuertes-De Arcos said. “In the beginning of my senior year, I wasn’t getting that many scholarships. I was feeling beaten.”
Because of the pandemic, she lost some research opportunities and other chances for potential scholarships, which started to discourage her.
Antonio Perez, her guidance counselor at South, nominated her for the award.
“Luckily, Mr. Perez had faith in me,” Fuertes-De Arcos said, “and no matter what, even after rejection after rejection I got in the beginning, he encouraged me to keep applying for scholarships.”