By Rosie Chamuryan
Lisa Watanabe, 23, is one of two East Los Angeles College students who were awarded the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship.
Watanabe is a resident of Monterey Park and a graduate of Mark Keppel High School.
She decided to return to school and pursue a degree in science three years after finishing culinary school.
Watanabe was working in restaurants as a line cook and daytime kitchen manager. “Restaurant work is hard,” she said.
“It’s physically demanding yet pays little. I couldn’t see myself doing it until I grew old. I knew I wanted to go back to school for a little while but I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue.”
Watanabe, who first heard about the scholarship last year through the USC Scholars Transfer Program, received an email from MESA, the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement program.
The email invited interested students to come to the transfer center at a certain time to discuss the process for applying.
“I had a class scheduling conflict, so I made an appointment with Paulina Palomino, the transfer center director. I asked her a bunch of questions about the scholarship and about applying for transfer. I didn’t think I was eligible to apply, so I didn’t have it done the day it was due.”
“I noticed that she began the application process, but had yet to submit it. I contacted her and explained to her that she was eligible and she did it,” said Palomino.
“After she explained to me that I was eligible, I panicked,” she said. Watanabe completed the entire application in the same day.
“I hounded my professors and old boss for letters of recommendations. I skipped all of my meals that day to finish the application.
“I was literally submitting it the last minute. The application process was long. Really long,” said Watanabe.
Watanabe received a surprise notification that she was one of two winners from ELAC while in class.
“They announced my name and I thought ‘Oh my goodness.’ Then I came up to the front of the class and cried a bit,” said Watanabe.
“I’m very proud and not surprised at all,” said Palomino. “I know how wonderful Lisa is.”
Watanabe currently works for MESA. She coordinated this year’s Earth Day event and is now helping with the summer academy program.
“I do research during the summers. Not only does it pay well, but it’s entertaining and looks great on a resume,” she said.
“Last year I worked at Caltech doing materials science research, and this summer I will be working at Harvey Mudd doing statistical modeling of music. I’m super nervous and excited.”
Watanabe is torn between where she will be transferring.
“As of now, I am leaning toward UC Berkeley.”
She originally wanted to go to Northwestern or Rice University, but then realized how much she would miss her friends and family.
“Berkeley has a very prestigious math program and is a relatively short flight away from my family and friends,” she said.
“I change my mind every day-literally. Tomorrow I may very well say I want to go to Rice. Either way, I need to decide where I’m going to go by the end of the month.”
Watanabe’s passion is playing the piano.
“I used to play piano for fun, but my church had to take the fancy keyboard they were lending me back to use for church services.
“I’m hoping I will be able to afford to get my own so I can start playing again. I really miss it,” she said.
These days, Watanabe spends most of her free time with her friends and family.
“Now that I know I won’t be in the area for a while, I’m really taking advantage of this time,” said Watanabe.
“I just want to say how thankful I am for ELAC. I feel like I was given a second chance. In high school I had a lot of issues going on at home.
I ended up getting into partying and went way off course.
“When I decided to get my life back together, ELAC was there for me. I was completely lost with this whole college thing, but ELAC had really attentive staff.
“Additionally, the faculty members here really pushed and encouraged me. They had confidence in me when I didn’t,” said Watanabe.
The Cooke Scholarship is awarded to 50 students nationwide and provides up to $30,000 for school expenses.
According to its website, it is the largest private scholarship for two-year and community college transfer students in the country.
It can be renewed for up to three years.