Michelle Robles dreamed about going to college, but reality came pouring down like a bucket of ice water.
"My mom was permanently laid off from work," said Robles, 18. "She was using money that she had saved for me to go to college to pay our mortgage and to survive. She told me that I had to apply for scholarships and that she wanted me to go to college and get an education."
The Fort Mill High School senior launched a massive scholarship search that yielded more than $50,000 in scholarships, including a $20,000 award from the Kentucky Fried Chicken Colonel's Scholars Program.
"I started crying," she said of learning of the award during spring break. "I couldn't believe it. That had to be God."
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Robles received the KFC scholarship during an awards ceremony at Fort Mill High last month. More than 150,000 high school seniors nationwide who excelled in and out of the classroom, applied for KFC's scholarship. Robles was among two South Carolina teens - and only 75 nationwide - to receive the award, according to KFC.
"These students have proven that they are completely committed to both their education and enriching and supporting their schools and communities, said Roger Eaton, KFC president.
Robles, who is ranked 51 out of 306 Fort Mill High students, also was awarded six other scholarships. Those scholarships, combined with the KFC award, topped $50,000, paving the way for Robles to go to college.
"I'm proud of her because she is one of few students who took the initiative to apply for any and every scholarship that she could apply for," said guidance counselor Teasha Kincaid. "She wasn't afraid to write essays. She stayed on top of deadlines."
Robles said her aggressive pursuit of a college education began at birth; countless times over the years, her mother, Herlinda Garcia, sacrificed so Robles could obtain a good education.
"I want to make my mom proud," Robles said. "She's worked so hard for me to go to college. She worked double shifts for me to go to a private school when we lived in New Jersey."
When Robles was in the third grade, mother and daughter moved to York County, eventually making a home in Fort Mill. Over the years, Garcia encouraged Robles to continue her education beyond high school.
"I'm the first in my family to go [to college]" Robles said. "My mom always had random jobs, and she didn't want that kind of life for me."
Robles had a dream, too.
"My grandmother died of cancer," she said. "I always knew I wanted to be a doctor."
So Robles prepped for a medical career. She took classes in sports medicine and health science, and she interned four weeks each at a Fort Mill dentist as well as an urgent care center, she said. She also did an eight-week stint at Fort Mill Vision.
"That's what I want to do," said Robles, who ran track and Cross Country at Fort Mill High. "I want to be an ophthalmologist."
Then, Garcia lost her job in 2007.
"When my mom lost her job, I was looking at prices for college tuition," Robles said. "I would pray every night because I knew I wouldn't let the lack of money stop me from my dream of becoming a doctor."
Instead, she spent her free time searching for scholarships and ultimately applied for 18, she said. While waiting for responses, she continued working as a lifeguard at the Baxter YMCA.
"From 4:30 to 7 a.m. in the morning so I wouldn't miss any practices or track meets after school," she said.
Now, Robles' college dream is a reality. She is set to move into a dormitory at the College of Charleston in July, a feat she in part credits to her mother, who eventually found a new job.
"The only way I can repay her for all she's done for me is by becoming a doctor and becoming successful in life," she said.