Cathedral Catholic grad earns San Diego Foundation scholarship for USD

Cathedral Catholic High School class of 2020 graduate Denise Picazo is proud to be the first in her family to attend a four-year university.

Denise started her freshman year of college at The University of San Diego on Aug. 17, thanks in large part to a scholarship from the San Diego Foundation. She is one of 1,000 students awarded a scholarship this year – a record $3.3 million to recipients, of which 63% are first-generation college students and 83% are from low-income households.

Denise Picazo
Denise Picazo, a Cathedral Catholic graduate, is attending USD on a scholarship from the San Diego Foundation.

“Students from Latinx, Black and low-income communities are historically underrepresented in higher education,” said Danielle Valenciano, director of community scholarships at The San Diego Foundation. “Significant barriers with respect to college readiness, access to college, and college completion continue to lower underrepresented students’ odds of obtaining college degrees relative to their wealthier, well-represented peers. Investing in flexible scholarships, while also focusing on the retention and persistence of our students, is one of the best ways we can help foster equity in education.”

Denise comes from an immigrant household and credits much of her success to her mother who has always valued education and was aware of the educational disparities that vary among zip codes. Due to those disparities in her City Heights neighborhood, Denise traveled to attend elementary school in Clairemont at Cadman Elementary and went onto middle school at Nativity Prep Academy, the tuition-free Catholic school in San Diego where many students represent the first generation in their families to earn a college education.

For high school, Denise got on a bus at 5 a.m. to travel to Carmel Valley to attend Cathedral Catholic. Her four years at Cathedral Catholic were in many ways an eye-opening experience for Denise.

“I got to be more knowledgeable about the world outside of City Heights--there was a very different level of economic status. I got to meet people who were unlike me and see that it didn’t really make me any less of a person,” Denise said. “I realized I wasn’t going to be accepted in every environment I was placed in. In some cases, there was racial tension. It helped me mature... I met people from all different walks of life and learned how to interact with people who were different than me. It taught me to be strong and to practice self-advocacy.”

At CCHS she was able to take higher-level courses for college—thanks to her psychology 101 class and her “amazing” teacher Frank Caro, she picked her career path. At USD she will be majoring in psychology with a focus in law and criminal justice—she plans to attend graduate school and get her master’s in psychology. At Cathedral, she was also introduced to equestrian sports, participated in track and swimming, and was the president of the school’s Interact Club, a service club associated with Rotary International.

While attending Cathedral Catholic, Denise stayed involved in her community by joining the Barrio Logan College Institute as a volunteer tutor. Every Monday from 3-5 p.m. she helped inspire and help young third grade students.

“I love working with kids,” she said. “It was a good experience, they all have such different personalities and they made me laugh.”

In addition to her mother stressing the importance of a good education, Denise also credits much of her success to her MANA de San Diego mentor Tanya Conchas who has been by her side since she was in the seventh grade. MANA, short for “hermana” the Spanish word for sister, is a nonprofit organization that seeks to develop and nurture Latina leaders through education, advocacy and community service. The organization pairs students with mentors through their “Hermanitas” program to reach the goal of graduating from a higher education institution and enter the professional workforce.

“Tanya has taught me many valuable lessons about college and life beyond,” Denise said. “She has positively influenced my life and has guided me on my journey to being an empowered Latina.”

Conchas was also a first-generation student and was very inspiring and supportive of Denise, guiding not only her educational path toward college but also helping with her mental and emotional wellbeing.

The Catholic faith is important in Denise’s family and she liked that at Cathedral Catholic, no one forced her to get involved with campus ministry or retreats—she was instead encouraged to look for God in her own journey, which meant a lot to her. She found her own spiritual freedom and keeping her Catholic identity was one factor that led her to choose USD, even though she was accepted into six other universities.

Nativity Prep makes an 11-year commitment to all of its students though its graduate support program—the school helps subsidize high school tuition costs and helps alumni navigate the college admissions process. Nativity helped get Denise set up with a tour of USD.

“When I stepped onto the campus, it was just awesome,” Denise recalls, noting that in many ways it felt unbelievable that she would have the opportunity to go to a college like that.

She said her educational journey was not always easy and many times she questioned if it was worth it to work as hard as she did.

“At many points I wanted to give up but I thought of all the sacrifices my parents made to get me to where I was,” Denise said. (Being accepted at USD) put a face on what I was working toward the whole time. It feels unreal…It’s really a dream come true.”

Due to the pandemic, Denise won’t be able to move onto campus just yet and the first semester this fall will be online only—she is looking forward to joining her fellow Toreros on campus when it is safe to do so.

Denise’s advice to students who may face similar barriers is to always remember the bigger picture and don’t get caught up in the now: “There is always someone naturally better but it comes down to hard work and patience,” she said. “Set goals and always follow through.”

“You can’t help but be inspired by young San Diegans like Denise, who overcome barriers every day to reach their dreams,” Valenciano said. “Her drive and commitment to community is proof that the future of our region is bright.”