by Christopher J. Spurlock
“This is a Teaching Moment”
This week was a long one, to say the least. On Friday, my partner and I were assigned to what we thought was a compelling story about how light pollution can affect military night training operations. We were promised access to both Whiteman Air Force Base and Fort Leonard Wood, and we were really excited to get so close to the action and do some real reporting. We spent all day Friday, part of the weekend, and all day Monday contacting sources and lining up interviews.
Then, Tuesday came. And everything fell apart.
Our sources, seemingly all at once, backed out on us. They gave a myriad of excuses and apologies, but it didn’t make us feel any better. It was Tuesday afternoon, our story was due in 48 hours, and we had nothing.
We spent a good couple of hours brainstorming with our professor, and eventually we decided on a story idea. It was weak, but it was something. We were told it was a “teaching moment,” and that we were to do our best to create the best story with whatever we could find.
We knew the new members of Mizzou ’39 had been announced a few days before, so we set out to find one of the recipients with an interesting story and profile them. After placing a few calls, we found a student named Dolores Obregon. Based on the initial information we gathered sounded marginally interesting, but we didn’t have our hopes up.
Well, it turns out that Dolores has an absolutely fascinating story, and I was lucky enough to have the privilege of telling it.
Go ahead and read the story below. I promise you won’t be disappointed. You might even cry at the end. (My professor did, and she’s no softie.)
MU Senior Overcomes Tragedy, Poverty to Win Mizzou ’39 Award
By CHRIS SPURLOCK
Dolores Obregon will never forget what her father’s feet looked like.
“My brothers, my sister and I were in a room, and I remember seeing his feet being pulled away on a stretcher,” Obregon said. “I didn’t quite know what it meant or how it would affect my life, but I knew something bad had happened.”
Obregon was four years old the day her father was shot and killed in San Antonio, Texas.
As she recounted this story, she did not cry. She simply stared straight ahead, focused. Her brown eyes were soft, but behind them lay the intensity that has driven her for the past 18 years.
That intensity is what brought her from Texas to Missouri. She set out on a journey to prove that someone who comes from nothing can become something. Now, just three months from graduation, Obregon is being recognized for all the things she accomplished on that journey.
Obregon, 22, is one of 39 seniors at MU to receive the Mizzou ’39 award, given to those who excel in three categories: academic excellence, community involvement and service, and leadership and involvement on campus. Six years ago, members of the MU Alumni Association Student Board created the award in an attempt to reach out to an underappreciated campus population.
“We realized Mizzou didn’t really have an award that just recognized seniors,” said Carrie Bien, coordinator of student programs for the Mizzou Alumni Association.
Bien said students apply for the award for many reasons and come from very diverse backgrounds. Obregon said she applied because she wanted to be an inspiration to younger family members.
“My fiancé and I have 10 nieces and nephews between us, and they’re the reason why I do a lot of what I do,” Obregon said. “I wanted Mizzou ’39 because I wanted to show them that it’s possible for their aunt to come to this school and be one of the top 39 seniors in the graduating class.”
Obregon, who was selected out of a pool of 144 applicants, was recognized for her involvement in campus organizations like Mortar Board as well as her service with Centro Latino, a community organization that works with less fortunate children of Columbia’s Latin population. She says she sees children every day who remind her of herself as a child, and that is what pushes her to give back to them and to the community.
“Every day I work there, I tell those kids that they’re great, that they’re special,” Obregon said. “They need know that, someone to tell them that.”
The first member of her family to go to college, Obregon said she never anticipated being where she is today.
“I didn’t have that push from home to go to college, because it’s just not something expected,” Obregon said. “It was hard for my mom to push something on me when she had never done it herself.”
However, Obregon’s mother had no doubt her daughter was college-bound.
“She was different. I didn’t have to tell her about school because she was always telling me,” said Martha Ramirez, Obregon’s mother. “She was always the one that loved school the most, and the teachers loved her. They would sometimes even leave her in charge of the class.”
Even when Obregon was sick she still demanded to go to school, and her mother knew it was useless to fight her.
“She hated missing school, because she wanted to learn,” Ramirez said. “She was like a sponge, she absorbed everything.”
Obregon loved school for another reason, though. After her father died her mother fell into depression and began taking anxiety medication. To avoid seeing her mother in pain, Obregon took refuge at school.
“It was always happier for me at school, because at home I always had to deal with my mom being sad all the time,” Obregon said. “She is a very strong woman, but she’s human, you know? It hurt.”
Aside from the grief, there was another barrier to Obregon’s success. After her father died, her family fell into poverty. Living off welfare and Medicaid, Ramirez tried to create the best life possible for her family.
“She would always pawn all of her jewelry before every holiday so she could buy a few things,” Obregon said.
Though she lived her entire childhood in poverty, Obregon said she never knew she was poor. Instead, she believed the experience of her youth was just like every other child’s. It wasn’t until high school that Obregon began to realize she was different. She started to want for some of the luxuries other students had, and realized her mother couldn’t afford them.
“My first experience shopping at a store besides a thrift store or a flea market was when I was in ninth or tenth grade,” Obregon said. “We went to J.C. Penney and I thought, ‘Oh, wow. Whoa. We made it.’”
Because of her financial situation, Obregon knew she would have to find a scholarship to help her get to college. From the outset, she had a few things going for her. Between second and sixth grade, she was recognized by Duke University as one of the nation’s top students based on her IQ and test scores. She also won the Princeton Book Award and was selected as a student listed for the Who’s Who Among American High School Students two years in a row.
Obregon’s high school counselor recognized her exceptional accomplishments and encouraged her to apply for the Gates Millennium Scholars program, which is sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The program, which awards 1,000 scholarships to low-income students each year, is the largest minority scholarship program in the country. Obregon filled out the application, which included at least 10 essays and took her more than a week to complete, and was selected as an award recipient. The award gave Obregon a full scholarship to MU, covering her tuition, room and board, and books, as well as providing her with a stipend.
Money, however, didn’t cure all of Obregon’s problems. During her freshman year, she was a victim of racism. There were several incidents involving three other females on her floor, one of which was particularly blunt.
“I was talking to one of the girls and she said, ‘Don’t talk to me, I don’t understand Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish,’” Obregon said. “I told her, ‘Well, apparently you don’t speak English either, because I’m speaking English and I speak it better than you.’”
Obregon was particularly hurt because she was being criticized for something she couldn’t change.
“When you live with somebody who’s mean like that, what do you do?” Obregon said. “It’s not like I can go in the restroom and wipe off my Hispanic heritage or get rid of my last name. So what do you do?”
Obregon’s dreams now include some ambitious post-graduation plans. She hopes to be accepted as part of the Teach for American program so she can return to the San Antonio area. She plans to use the experience as research for a project she has been planning for a few years.
“My goal is to own my own magazine aimed at helping low income or less fortunate children go to college,” Obregon said.
Obregon plans to graduate in May, and has a wedding date set for July with her fiancé Spencer Ramirez, an aircraft inspector in San Antonio. The couple just finished construction on a house in San Antonio, and Obregon said she is thrilled to start a new, simpler chapter in her life.
“It’s weird because life was really hard growing up, with the money and with my dad, and now…it’s so easy now,” Obregon said. “And it’s really ironic almost, because your childhood is supposed to be the easy part of your life, but mine wasn’t.”
It is clear Obregon is proud of how far she has come, but according to Ramirez, the approval of her father means the most.
“She would always ask, ‘Is my daddy proud of me?’ And I would say, ‘Of course he is. He’s looking down from heaven, and he’s very proud.’”