The hardest thing about English, explained Walentas Scholar Katherine Olivar Flores? Being funny.
“In Spanish, I’m the funny friend,” giggled Flores, who entered the University of Virginia School of Nursing this August as a first-year student and one of just 12 Walentas Scholars at UVA. “But in English, not so much.”
It’s been six years since Flores arrived in the United States with her mom with little to laugh about. After an unhappy marriage and three children, Flores’ mom – who’d disclosed to her husband and family that she was gay – fled domestic violence and discrimination in their native El Salvador.
Their journey to the U.S. took three weeks of grueling travel by car, bus and on foot before Flores and her mother were picked up by Border Patrol agents in Texas and whisked to a detention facility.
Flores, then 12, recalls guards who barked orders, chain-link cages that separated children from their parents, and the crinkled foil blankets that did little to ward off the chilly Texas nights. It was 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum, streams of Syrian refugees, Zika’s spread across the Americas, and the election of then-President Donald Trump.
“…Helping others is what motivates her. UVA is so lucky.”
Through the uncertainty, though, Flores recalled joy, too: her mom’s startled yelp at a wild jackrabbit near the Rio Grande; the detention center’s library, where she pored over books, found art supplies and listened to music; the American nurses who spoke broken, apologetic Spanish as they cared for her; and the teachers who encouraged her along her path to Charlottesville – like Laura Lewis, an ESL teacher at Burley Middle School where Flores enrolled after arriving with her mother in June 2016.
“She’s extraordinary,” said Lewis, who first met Flores as a seventh-grade English as a Second Language student, later identified her for gifted courses and recently attended her high school graduation. “She excelled in everything, has a preternatural ability with language, and an executive function that’s off the charts. And helping others is what motivates her. UVA is so lucky.”
Once Flores settled with her aunt and godmother in Charlottesville, it didn’t take long for her to find firm footing. Though she entered seventh grade at Burley speaking no English, by eighth grade – thanks to fastidious study and a habit of transcribing pop music lyrics in a spiral notebook – she was already mesmerized by the classics: Jack London’s “To Build A Fire,” Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” and “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeline L’Engle.
“Once I started reading, nobody could stop me,” she said.
By her first year at Monticello High School, she enrolled in all honors-level courses. But it was in 10th-grade biology – her favorite class by far – “when it hit,” she recalled. “I was finally understanding concepts, starting to speak out loud, and if a teacher would ask a question, I’d answer it. If I got it right, I’d think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve got to keep doing this.’”
She did. “I was in love with school,” Flores said. “I never had homework because I was doing it all so fast.”
When it came time to apply for college, Flores’ high school counselor nominated her for the Walentas Scholarship, which was endowed in 2020 by David Walentas, a New York real estate developer who was first in his family to attend college. Part of a $100 million gift to the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, the Walentas Scholarship provides full tuition, a stipend, and enrichment activities to outstanding first-generation undergraduate students from Virginia; Rochester, New York; and New York City.
“Behind every word there is a story, and what are we all but a collection of our stories?”
Chosen from more than 2,400 applicants by the Jefferson Scholars Foundation and a panel of UVA alumni, Flores is among the dozen Walentas Scholars who start classes this fall alongside 40 Jefferson Scholars.
It’s a fitting victory for Flores, who graduated at the top of her Monticello High class in June and was chosen to deliver the graduation address. During her speech, she called herself a “word thief,” recalling her early days learning English.
“When you have to learn a new language to survive, you have to listen carefully to others,” she said. “When we share words, we share ideas, experiences, cultures. Behind every word there is a story, and what are we all but a collection of our stories?”
Flores – who hopes to complete a minor in art at UVA – ultimately plans to be a neonatal nurse. This summer, she worked at Creciendo Juntos, which provides education and leadership development to Charlottesville’s Latino community.
Now she has arrived at UVA, her “dream school,” beginning her next chapter.
“Nurses,” she said, “get to know the stories of their patients.”