Sophia Schwantes stands outside of Sitka High School. She graduates this May and plans to attend the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in the fall. (KCAW/Rose)

It’s Friday afternoon at Sitka High School, and Sophia Schwantes is sitting at the only lunch table unfolded in the common area. Because of COVID, she’s rarely in the building anymore, even though she’s just weeks away from graduating.

“My senior year has been for the most part online. I’ve taken two UAS online classes, so that was completely virtual,” she says. “And then I had Spanish and AP Calculus for my first semester where I was for the last bit of it completely online because of the COVID outbreak in Sitka.”

Schwantes graduates in May and plans to go to school in the fall to study medicine. And the scholarships are starting to roll in. This spring, she learned she’d won a national award from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.

The 22-year program honors Latino high school seniors who excel in the classroom and community. Schwantes won for interviewing doctors about their work–from Dr. Elliot Bruhl in Sitka to a pediatric surgeon at the University of Arizona.

“And I probably sent out 100 different emails to every surgeon that I could find their emails,” she says. “I’d just look up random hospitals, and, you know, do that sort of thing. And she was actually one of the only people that responded to me.”

Schwantes says she’s wanted to be a doctor since she was a young child. 

“I had a very close family friend be diagnosed with cancer when I was about five years old,” she says. “And I told my dad, I was like, ‘Dad, I’m going to cure him. I’m going to cure him from cancer.'”

“I always thought that that would be something that I would do in the future,” she says. “You know, maybe not necessarily cure cancer, but doing something where I know that I’m helping someone else is kind of what I always thought I would do. 

She found out she received the award in February. Usually it’s accompanied by a big spring ceremony, and recipients attend in-person, but she received her award over Zoom. Nevertheless, it was a special day. 

“It was nice. My dad is Mexican and he thinks that that winning this Hispanic award was not only great in the aspect of like, you know, I won an award for healthcare. But also, he thought that the things that I wrote about, talking about empowering people of our culture and stuff was very impressionable, and powerful.” 

Schwantes plans to attend the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in the fall to major in pre-med.