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From Humble Beginnings to Valedictorian, Mulberry High Grad Looks to a Career in STEM Fields

September 26, 2019 Success Stories, Talent Pipeline

Another student is using valuable lessons from Polk County Public Schools and taking them to higher education, this time to Stanford.

Mulberry High School biology teacher Stace Alcala played a major role in Brenda Alvarez-Lagunas’ love of science, challenging her in such a way that the 2019 valedictorian is now attending Stanford University in California on a full-ride scholarship.

“He taught his material in such creative ways that I learned so much and even began to consider a career in the science field,” said Alvarez-Lagunas.

“We conducted many experiments in the classroom; he even designed an outdoor classroom and invested much time and effort on how he furnished his classroom (cow skeleton, elephant skull, snake skins, etc). Stace Alcala did not simply hand over an A, he made sure students truly earned it.”

Finding challenging classes was difficult, the 18-year-old said, something that is changing at Mulberry High.

“At one point, I was enrolled in four different institutions (Mulberry Senior High School, Polk State College, Southeastern University and Florida Virtual School) to attain rigor. I had run out of AP options at my school, honors courses weren’t very challenging, and I had limited options.”

The most important thing she learned in school was how to find and take advantage of resources, and she was helped by her mentor, Dani Higgins, the success coach for migrant students at Mulberry High, helped.

“[Higgins] transformed my life by teaching me what a scholarship was, what valedictorian meant, and that my full potential had not been met,” Alvarez-Lagunas said. “In high school, I set out to challenge myself. I grew as a leader and as a role model for my younger siblings.”

She’s also quick to credit teachers in her elementary and middle schools. “They always put the effort to help me catch up and made me feel welcome,” she said. “The environment the teachers fostered was enough to make me excited to learn. The education I received was foundational for higher-level learning and truly helped me understand the world around me.”


“I feel like I have been given all the tools to succeed,” Alvarez-Lagunas said about her future in college.  Her past educational experiences have set her up nicely to attend rigorous classes at Stanford, which, she says, are much faster paced than she’s used to.

She plans to study bioengineering or material science and engineering. After taking one of Alcala’s classes, she was curious about these subjects.

“I began to explore the science field some more and found that these two majors would be fulfilling. Stanford is located in a prime location for medical advancements and offers many internship opportunities.”

Although she’s just started her college journey, she knows she wants to have a career in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering and math) after graduating. She’s not sure she’ll find the perfect job in Polk County, but she plans to return to visit family, volunteer, meet students and attend events.

Beyond education, she’s also happy to be in what she calls a “politically involved” state where she can be an advocate.

“The surrounding area is home to many migrant families who I would be able to help,” Alvarez-Lagunas said. “I plan to continue supporting poverty-stricken, minority communities. My ultimate goal is to start a scholarship fund to give the opportunity of higher-level education to students who are succeeding despite the odds and statistics.”


Alvarez-Lagunas said moving away from home is exciting, scary and challenging.

“It’s the scariest because I am thrown into independence, no one to take me to doctor appointments, pay for groceries or turn them into something delicious,” she said.

“It’s the most exciting time because from this moment forward my life will never be the same. I am on a campus full of opportunities, the rigor I’ve desired for years and surrounded by talented individuals.”

But that doesn’t mean she won’t miss her family. She longs for her mother’s “traditional dishes, her care and hugs of encouragement,” she said.

For additional information about this topic or how to become a partner with the Central Florida Development Council, please contact Lindsay Zimmerman at

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