“I’m so very proud of this particular group of Sanchez Scholars. I’m so happy that they are all graduating and they all have plans and they all feel supported,” Lesli Vázquez, coordinator of the high school Sánchez Scholars Program, tells Madison365. “I know that they are going places.”

The Sánchez Scholars Program, now 21 years old, is currently celebrating four high school graduates who will be moving on to really big things in the coming years. The program is also celebrating the announcement of five new Sánchez Scholars — students who are nominated in eighth grade and interviewed and selected each year by a selection committee.

Retired UW-Madison Professor Roberto Sánchez initially established a scholarship fund at the Madison Community Foundation in collaboration with the MMSD to inspire academic excellence by local Latino/a youth and to build a pathway for those in high school and postsecondary institutions to achieve their academic dreams.

They have also been supporting students supporting 17 scholars at Madison College, with support from Ruth Schoup. the Scholarship & Creative Director of the Madison College Foundation, and four scholars at UW-Madison since 2011 with the support of Alison Rice, Scholarships Officer with the College of Letters & Science and Prof. Ivy Corfis, a colleague and friend of Prof. Sánchez.

Lesli Vázquez

The Sanchez Scholar family has become huge over the years and now have added the five new scholars who were just selected last week. They include Luisa Isabela Almaraz of Spring Harbor Middle School; Jhonny Mejía Alcántara of Whitehorse Middle School; Grace Paz Ponce of Sennett Middle School; Santiago Rodríguez of Badger Rock Middle School; and Alan Tecalero of Sherman Middle School.

The five will be welcomed formally into the family in August.

The 2021 Graduating Sanchez Scholars include:

  • Linda Isabel Hernández Ugalde – Graduating from LaFollette High School and looking forward to continuing studies at Madison College for Medical Interpreting.
  • Sharon E. Ruíz – Graduating from LaFollette High School and looking forward to continuing studies at Harvard University in Environmental Science and Public Policy & Romance Languages and Literature.
  • María Magdalena Galán – Graduating from West High School and looking forward to continuing studies in the Madison College Cosmetology Program, after taking some time to visit family in Mexico.
  • Saul Díaz – A Scholar from West High School, graduating from the Early College STEM Academy, and looking forward to continuing his studies in Neurobiology as a Badger at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We’re super-duper excited because this year was so hard for them, but they persevered,” Vázquez says. “And we have great news — we have a scholar who completed the STEM program through MMSD and got accepted to UW-Madison and will be a Badger next year. We also have a scholar who applied, got accepted, and has a full ride to Harvard. She’s just beside herself.”

Vázquez has been with the Sanchez Scholars program for 17 years, starting as a volunteer in 2004, and has seen so many students come through the program over the years where they eventually form a large Sanchez Scholars family.

“The very first event I went to was an orientation and that’s the year our first Sanchez Scholar graduated from high school. I just fell in love with her,” Vázquez remembers. “She was so passionate about what she wanted to do and had such a clear vision of what she wanted to follow. The way she expressed herself about the support that she received from the program just inspired me.”

That first Sanchez Scholar was Sandra Becerra, who would graduate high school, and go to Beloit College where she would major in psychology.

“She’s a psychologist right now and she’ll be coming back to work with some of our kids,” Vázquez says. “That’s how the program comes full circle.”

Sánchez Scholar Evelyn Cuellar (Photo by Constantino Ocelotl)

Vázquez says that she is really excited about Sánchez Scholar Evelyn Cuellar, who will be the first in her family to graduate from college this spring with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and minors in ESL and bilingual teaching from Edgewood College. Cuellar and her family immigrated to Madison from Chihuahua, Mexico, 18 years ago to find a better life.

“Evelyn graduated with a degree in education and she will be teaching at the school [Midvale Elementary] where she went to when she first got here with her parents to the United States,” Vazquez says. “So that is very cool.”

Vázquez adds that success, for the students, “is so different for everybody who comes through this program.”

“I’m really happy and glad and grateful that not only the students but the families allow us to share in that adventure and undertaking because it is hard,” she says. “The kids put in a lot of effort and work and sacrifice to their education.

“Just being able to share with these young people as a cheerleader and a mentor, that gives me great joy and it moves me to continue to do the work. It’s never done. It’s never over. I’m amazed at how contagious it often is,” she adds. “By helping the one student in that family, it transfers to other students in the families – brothers, sisters, cousins … even parents. We have had parents who have been inspired to go back to school just because they’ve seen that it is possible for their kids.”

Sanchez Scholar Karen Pérez-Wilson (with her dad) graduated from UW-Madison in the Spring of 2019, with a bachelor of arts in Legal Studies and Chican@ Latin@ Studies. She will be returning to campus this fall as a law student at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Vázquez and other Sanchez Scholar staff will once again be doing “drive-by graduation celebrations” for the high school graduates this year during the pandemic.

“We did it last year and the students really loved it. The whole family was able to be included. Last year, I brought them a bag of necessities that they can use in college and they laughed,” she remembers. “We are looking forward to doing that for the seniors this year and then crossing our fingers that in August things will be more relaxed and we can celebrate our graduates further with an event. 

“This year has been a very hard year for everyone. It’s been a struggle. But it gives me a great feeling when young people are feeling happy about being successful in whatever they might be doing.”


Roberto G. Sánchez Scholarships are now offered to students at three different institutions — MMSD, Madison College and UW-Madison. The deadline for the Roberto G. Sánchez Scholarship, which provides up to a $10,000 scholarship for Hispanic/Latino students attending UW-Madison, is June 6.