Lynn native Coral Gonzalez is one of the first recipients of the Oprah Winfrey Scholarship, which doubled to $3 million after the generous celebrity came to town.
The University of Massachusetts Lowell raised $1.5 million in ticket sales and sponsorships ahead of last week’s Chancellor’s Speaker Series. Winfrey, the event’s special guest, was there to greet the six scholarship recipients and thank each of them for the handwritten thank-you cards they sent to her. Winfrey then surprised the school and matched another $1.5 million right on top.
“It was just an unbelievable moment,” said Gonzalez, a Lynn Tech High School alumna. “All I could hear was people cheering after they stood up and it was just so surreal.”
The scholarship, meant for students who are in financial need but show good academic standing, was initiated by Andre Dubus III, an English professor at UMass-Lowell. Winfrey and Dubus have been in contact since his debut novel, “House of Sand and Fog,” was on the talk show hosts’ book club section in 2000, according to the UMass-Lowell newsletter.
According to the newsletter, Dubus was one of the few authors she had on her show who wrote her a thank-you note. Winfrey said the note was beautifully written and is now on display as part of the “Watching Oprah” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History.
Dubus sent several eloquent letters of invitation to Winfrey over the years, according to the newsletter. When the talk show host realized the English professor was looking to raise money for students who need it, she said it was worth it.
The six scholarship recipients were initially slated to get $2,500 a semester, said Gonzalez, but that was before Winfrey doubled the amount. In order to be selected for the large sum award, students had to be nominated by someone from the university, and Gonzalez was nominated by Ann Ciaraldi, associate dean of compliance and violence prevention.
“I am very honored and thankful that I was chosen,” said Gonzalez. “If I didn’t meet Ann, I wouldn’t have been able to get this opportunity that I have and I love it because it opens up the door for other students who are in the same situation as me, or as any of the six of us.”
A sophomore nursing major with a 3.96 cumulative GPA, Gonzalez works three jobs. She has an on-campus job, one at Lynn’s Union Hospital as a tech in the emergency room, and one as a patient care associate in the post-operative unit at Winchester Hospital.
She said she went through years of housing insecurity through high school, and leading up to college, and didn’t find stability until she began her educational career at UMass-Lowell. While Gonzalez worked hard to ensure she did not bury herself in student loans, it’s been a borderline struggle to stay afloat.
With the scholarship money, Gonzalez will only have to worry about paying for books in her last two years, giving her more time to focus on her academics, she said. Upon her graduation from UMass-Lowell, Gonzalez said, she plans on becoming an emergency-trauma nurse and continuing her education to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner.
“What I see benefiting me the most is me being able to focus more on my studies and how to better myself as a nurse,” she said. “Doing all of this will better prepare me for my future, that’s the way I look at it. No matter how tired I may be, I know this is what’s best for what I want to do in life.”