North County High senior Romeo Urias, winner of a $120,000 scholarship, will be the first in his family to attend college

From dedication, sweet success


As he watched some of his North County High School classmates enjoy their junior year, take after-school jobs and go out with friends, Romeo Urias says he sometimes got depressed.

"I felt like I was the only one up late [studying]; everyone else is enjoying life, and I'm not," he said.

His parents wouldn't let him work at a job after school, insisting that he focus on his studies and school activities. Besides, when would he have time? He was rising at 6 a.m., after going to sleep at 1 a.m.

Football, track, band and Advanced Placement classes made for a full schedule. But then he snapped out of his funk.

"I've just gotten used to it," Urias said. "It's the only way I can do well."

And the hard work and long hours have paid off big - in the form of a four-year $120,000 scholarship to Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., where Urias plans to study chemical engineering. Urias, who, as the son of Central American immigrants, learned English as a pupil, will be the first in his family to attend college.

Urias won the award through the Posse Foundation in Washington, a youth leadership and college access program that was started in New York in 1989. The foundation recruits outstanding high school students and sends them to college in "posses" that act as support groups; he will be part of a group attending Lafayette from the Washington area.

Urias was one of 32 students chosen from 700 applicants in this area.

During the three-month selection process, the Posse Foundation looked for students who exhibit leadership, show strong academic promise and work well in a group. Marcy Mistrett, director of the D.C. Posse Foundation, said it also considers diversity, in terms of interests and community and religious backgrounds.

"He brought all those pieces," Mistrett said. "He's very intentional and deliberate and very pleasant. He's just great."

And modest.

When talking about his extracurricular activities, Urias casually mentions that he plays seven instruments - all but two are self-taught. He's played the alto saxophone in concert band and the trombone in marching band. He taught himself to play drums, piano, bass, guitar and the accordion - a family instrument, he says.

He plays two instruments and sings for his church band, which has two other members. Urias worried that the band would cease to exist when he left. So he offers music lessons every Friday at church.

Urias' Christian faith is very important him, and he credits his faith for much of his success.

"People say, `You deserve this scholarship because you're smart,'" Urias said. "But I am smart because that's the way he made me.

"All my life I've had faith in God, and I'm grateful for the way he's blessed me," he said.

His parents consider the scholarship a blessing as well. His father, Vidal, came to Maryland from El Salvador, and his mother, Blanca, came from Guatemala. Both arrived when they were adults and are not fluent in English. The two met in Maryland, and Urias and his three sisters, ages 5, 14 and 15, were raised in Glen Burnie.

"When I got the news that he had received this blessing, first I cried. Then we all hugged each other and gave thanks to God," Vidal Urias said in Spanish. "It's a great blessing for us. With our economic condition, it would have been difficult to support our son in this way."

Urias said his father owns a landscaping business. But his father said he wanted his son to have an easier life.

"I've always worked in construction, and I've always had to work really hard. Construction is a very difficult profession," Vidal Urias said. "I urged him to study and sacrifice so he could be successful in his studies and wouldn't have to work like I have."

Urias' mother said she also wanted him to focus on his studies.

"We never let him work" at a job, Blanca Urias said. "We knew that he was very intelligent, and we always told him that his work was school work."

After winning the award, one might think he'd take it easy. But the senior at North County High School is taking a full course load for the last half of his senior year, with four AP classes.

"He's here on a full schedule, and many seniors aren't. It's not an easy load," said Patricia Plitt, principal of North County High School. "He has a love of learning. He's a kid who just wants to learn and learn and learn."

Urias said he still wants to push himself, even though he has a 4.4 grade-point average (the top of the scale is 4.0, with extra points for AP classes) and is ranked second in his graduating class of more than 400 students.

"I didn't want to take a break," he said.

Urias' hard work began on his first day of pre-kindergarten, when he arrived speaking only Spanish. He had to learn English at school.

"It was hard," he said. "Especially in the homework. My parents weren't able to help because of barriers in language."

Because of that experience, Romeo tutors Spanish-speaking students in Baltimore every Monday. He also tutors at his high school two days a week.

Urias says that by being the first in his family to attend college, he hopes to be a role model for his sisters and other students.

"Set your goals high, and be the best you can be," Urias said of his advice for others. "And have faith you'll reach it."

Sun reporter Bradley Olson contributed to this article.

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