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Soon-to-be Northern Virginia Community College graduate David Liendo is all smiles when talking about his future.

And why not? Despite being accepted by Virginia Tech, UCLA, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill earlier this year, the Falls Church resident will attend Cornell, the largest of the Ivy League universities, this fall.

Before heading north, the 21-year-old science major will join ranks with about 7,750 NOVA students graduating on Saturday. Due in large part to his 4.0 grade point average, Liendo won this year’s Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, a private scholarship for two-year college transfer students that provides up to $30,000 per year to each of the approximately 50 students selected.

For students like Liendo, the scholarship represents an opportunity to take the next step in academics.

“If I didn’t get the scholarship, it would be difficult for me to take that next step,” said Liendo, who wants to be a doctor. “My parents are unable to give me anything [financially].”

Originally from Bolivia, Liendo moved to the United States in 2006 at the age of 16. While his parents and three siblings remain in South America, Liendo lives with relatives in Falls Church.

A 2010 graduate of Falls Church High School, Liendo spoke almost no English when he arrived in the U.S.

“At the beginning, it was tough because I faced the reality that I was learning everything again,” said Liendo, who graduated from Falls Church with a 3.6 GPA. “There are better opportunities here. I knew [that] here I could make my dreams a reality, which is not always the case in my country.”

He is the first person in his family to be awarded a high school diploma and on Saturday will become the first to receive a college degree.

Liendo’s story is similar to that of NVCC’s first Jack Kent Cooke scholarship recipient Dan Nechita, who is this year’s commencement keynote speaker. Nechita arrived in the U.S. from Romania in 2002 with his wife, who was beginning her graduate studies here. He received the scholarship in 2006, after which he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from Columbia University.

“The JKCF Scholarship is more than just a financial aid package. I would argue that finances matter the least here,” Nechita said. “The… scholarship opens many doors in terms of perception and of academic achievement on one hand and, on the other hand, it is an award that comes with a community of similar-minded scholars…

“I was thrilled to have met David. I am quite convinced that, once again, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has picked a true scholar… All [the scholarship] scholars have amazing life stories. Their experiences lead them to seek much more than personal success in life. Most scholars dedicate their lives to the service of others.”

This is true of Liendo, who says his interest in science and becoming a doctor stems from his desire to help others.

When Liendo was 14 years old, his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Watching her struggle and eventually die from cancer has motivated Liendo toward a career as an oncologist.

“I thought, I really need to do this to help other people,” he said. “Science — it was always something interesting for me. I told my mom [when younger], ‘I want to be a doctor and take care of you.’”

Liendo contributes his scholastic success in part to his high school’s Advancement Via Individual Determination program, an elective course for high school students that concentrates on college-readiness.

“David in many ways is the typical AVID student,” said Falls Church High School AVID teacher Francis Payne. “It was an easy marriage for AVID and David. He wanted to learn as much as possible and as soon as possible… He has done all this while working 40-plus hours each week to support himself and pay his own way.”

Although David received a number of scholarships in high school, Payne said the funds did not amount to enough for him to attend a four-year university.

“Now looking back on that, perhaps [it’s] a good thing as he has only continued to shine at NOVA,” he said.

Liendo agreed, saying NOVA was a good choice for him.

“It gave me an opportunity scholastically, but it was also cheaper financially,” he said. “We take the same classes. I was going to go to Virginia Tech and they gave me my schedule but it was too expensive… What I got from NOVA is I got really close to my professors. I got to really know the school. They’re here to help.”

NOVA English Professor Elizabeth Harlan said Liendo’s dedication, intelligence and hard work make him stand out as a student. She said he is an inspiration and role model to his fellow students.

“Our mission at NVCC is to provide quality, affordable education to the people of our community to help them reach their goals, and David has shown how possible that is,” she said. “He has taken advantage of every opportunity NVCC has to offer, including challenging courses and a wide range of student activities, to help him reach his goal.”

One program NVCC offers students is the Pathway to the Baccalaureate, a program that partners with local public school systems and George Mason University with the goal of generating greater access to higher education for students in Northern Virginia. As part of the program, NVCC and GMU have a student-transfer agreement allowing easier transitions from the community college to the university.

About 40 percent of NVCC’s graduates transfer to a four-year institute.

Liendo is a participant in the Pathway program.

“Admission to the Pathway to the Baccalaureate Program is selective,” said NVCC math instructor Jamie Foo, who was one of Liendo’s professors. “David is not only an excellent student, but he is also personally delightful. Motivated and enthusiastic, he has shown himself to be a committed learner, willing to pursue his future goals.”

While Saturday’s graduation of Northern Virginia Community College represents the beginning of careers or the continuation of education, Liendo said it marks a long-time family dream come true.

“Having even a high school degree was a great accomplishment for me,” he said. “[My parents] are so proud that I’m accomplishing all my goals. No one in my family has been able to live their dreams.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com