Colorado Springs high school students surprised with one of state’s most coveted scholarships


Twelve Colorado Springs high school students attended the Pioneers Museum Tuesday for what they thought was a reception recognizing outstanding students — a half-truth that failed to mention they’d also receive one of the state’s most coveted college awards.

Daniels Fund President and CEO Hanna Skandera surprised the students with college scholarships worth up to $100,000 when she revealed they were all selected for the foundation’s prestigious Daniels Scholarship Program.

“Bill Daniels believed that education was a game changer, that it could create possibilities that nothing else could,” Skandera said of the foundation’s namesake and founder. “We are proud and inspired by these kids because they are going to be the leaders of tomorrow.”

As soon as Eli Hauber heard the word the “scholars” during a presentation, he figured out that they were being surprised with the Daniels Fund scholarship. He jumped up and slapped hands with the rest of twelve scholarship winners on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Hauber goes to Cheyenne Mountain High School. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

The program provides four years of financial support at any nonprofit, accredited college or university in the U.S. depending on financial need. Selected students demonstrate exceptional character, leadership and a commitment to serving their communities.

Christian Carlos Ruiz Mendez, a Daniels scholar from St. Mary’s High School, said years of hard work instilled in him by his family have paid off.

“It means everything that I’ve been through,” Ruiz Mendez said of the scholarship. “My mom emigrated from Mexico, and she’s a single mom. I just think about the times I go to work with her, I go to work with my grandpa, and I just do it all for them, for my family.”

His mother, Araceli Mendez, said the scholarship is a blessing because without it, her son’s education would have been limited to what was affordable, which were not the best options for her son.

Education has not come easily for her family. For years they spent their weekends working at stadiums in Denver from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and sleeping in the car just to afford a Catholic education for her children.

They leaned on Parents Challenge, a nonprofit that helps low-income families send their children to the schools of their choice. It’s through this organization that he first learned about the Daniels Fund as a fourth grader, Ruiz Mendez said. Thanks to the Daniels Fund, gone are the days of the weekend job to make educational ends meet.

Twelves local high school students were surprised with the announcement that they had earned Daniels Fund scholarships. They were attending an event at the Pioneers Museum on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Daniels Scholars will receive up to $100,000 to be applied at any 2 or 4 year, nonprofit, college or university in the United States, depending on financial need. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

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About 230 graduating high school seniors from Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming will receive Daniels scholarships each year. To date, the program has awarded more than $250 million in scholarships to more than 2,930 students.

About a third of scholars are first generation college students, Skandera said.

“The stories these kids have of their families and the work they’ve done to get to where they are is pretty amazing,” she said. “I remember last year there was a young woman whose parents had been killed in a car crash … just overcoming so many different hurdles that life might bring that some kids might just give up. She didn’t give up. She just kept going.”

Israel Oketunmbi, a Daniels scholar from Sand Creek High School, didn’t speak much English when he emigrated from Nigeria to the United States at the age of 7. Elementary and middle school were a struggle, he recalled, as he struggled through behavioral and academic issues without being able to properly communicate.

His counselors helped him through it, however, inspiring him later on to begin mentoring programs at his former elementary and middle schools. Each week he works with students for one to two hours on homework and discusses how they are feeling.

“The best Daniels scholars are anybody that writes their own story,” Oketunmbi said, “anybody that goes out there, tries to make this world a better place.”

Namesake Bill Daniels was a cable television pioneer who owned hundreds of cable systems and helped to shape the industry in its early days, according to the foundation website. After growing up poor during the Great Depression, he committed himself to a life of giving back to those in need. He left $1.1 billion to the Daniels Fund upon his death in 2000, formally establishing the foundation.

The Daniels Fund distributed more than $63.8 million through nonprofit grants and student scholarships in 2022, according to a February news release. The foundation has donated more than a billion dollars to date through scholarships and grants.