by Stephanie Harp

When Casco Bay High School senior Margarida Celestino saw a summer email inviting her to apply for a QuestBridge Scholarship, she thought it was spam. Curious, she looked up QuestBridge and saw that the process was very competitive. She thought, “I can’t do this because, yes, I do a lot of clubs at school and have good grades. But I’m not good with standardized testing. Even when they say ‘test optional,’ they still look at it.” She ignored the invitation. When school began, her guidance counselor said, “You saw the email, right? Start it.” So she did, thinking she had little chance for the scholarship. “First of all, I’m an asylum seeker, and that already is a problem for the college process because I don’t qualify for FAFSA.”

But Celestino realized that by nominating her, College and Career Transition Coordinator Stephanie Doyle (her guidance counselor) was showing faith in her abilities. “My mom always tells me I’m a positive person, but I tend to go on the realistic side,” she said. Because she didn’t think she’d succeed, she delayed completing the application until the last minute. In late November, another email told Celestino she was a QuestBridge finalist. “I had to read that over and over. I’m a finalist! Me!” For the next step in the process, she had to rank her college choices from the list of very selective QuestBridge partner schools and complete supplemental essays for each.

“My mom saw how stressed I was, and said, ‘I’m giving you two weeks without chores. Finish your college application and we’ll see the results.’ That does not happen in an African household,” Celestino said with a laugh. “I’m the oldest and the only girl. My parents work night shifts, so they come home and they’re already tired.” Usually Celestino cooks and helps her three younger brothers, ages 15, 12, and 8, get ready for school.

Friends and teachers were supportive; their responses varied from assuring her she would be chosen to preparing her for bad news, just in case. Celestino worried about disappointing those cheering for her. On December 1, she learned she’d received a full, four-year scholarship to Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. “I was so happy. I emailed all my teachers. I texted my mom. She was at work and she called me.” Celestino is the first QuestBridge Scholar from Casco Bay High School.

She strongly advocates applying for scholarships because “people shouldn’t worry about things they have no control over,” like the cost of college. Throughout high school, one of her goals had been to win scholarships that covered as much as possible, and she’d been open about telling her teachers and guidance counselors. Her advice for other high school students: “Get close to your teachers and tell them your needs. My sophomore and junior years, I always told them that the financial piece was my biggest problem. If I never told them, they wouldn’t have known.” That’s why she also advocates being open with teachers and administrators. “Find a mentor, someone who you know has your best interest at heart…someone you can confide in. If my guidance counselor didn’t see my potential, I definitely would not have gotten this opportunity.” Celestino hadn’t known QuestBridge existed until she was nominated.

Her career goal is to become an obstetrician/gynecologist to address the high childbirth mortality rates among Black women in the U.S. During last spring’s shutdown, her chemistry teacher let students select from a list of topics for a research project. Celestino chose the effects of COVID-19 on Black people. “We have racist foundations in this country, but how is it that Black people are affected by a virus that came less than three months ago?” she wondered at the time. Looking at Black and white mortality rates, she came across childbirth statistics. “I knew the medical field had a lot of biases, but it’s not only COVID,” she said. Black women die in childbirth more frequently than white women. Celestino loves babies and likes working with women, so being an OB-GYN would be a good combination. Her senior “expedition” project – a Casco Bay High School requirement – will include stories of Black women giving birth during COVID. After college and a medical degree, Celestino wants to pursue a Ph.D., perhaps focusing on preeclampsia, a condition of high blood pressure during pregnancy. “I really want to dig in and see how it is that doctors don’t realize this stuff beforehand, and why they wait until it’s too late, when it could have been prevented.”

She worries that people don’t know about dangers associated with giving birth as a Black woman. “It’s out there but people don’t talk about it. They’re not aware of what’s really happening, just because your mom didn’t have complications.” Her first mission will be to inform and help save those who are in close contact with her. “Obviously, I can’t save the world,” she said.

But based on how she’s doing so far, she just might.