Top grades and desire to ease family’s financial burden leads to coveted QuestBridge scholarship

DORAL – When he begins his freshman year this fall at Boston University, Alvaro Saenz plans to major in biomedical engineering, a decision driven by his lifelong love of science and his desire to dedicate his life to helping people with special needs – such as his brother.

“It combines the best of both worlds,” he said.

Alvaro has always been fascinated with science. The desire to work with those with special needs comes from his younger brother, Jose Pablo, who, at a young age, developed a form of epilepsy that cannot be controlled by medication.

Alvaro will graduate this spring near the top of his high school class then study biomedical engineering at Boston University.

Alvaro was in second grade at the time. Since his parents, Ivan and Maria, needed to direct most of their attention toward Jose Pablo, who can suffer as many as nine seizures in a day, Alvaro decided to become as independent as possible. He helped more around the home and learned to do his homework without asking for help. No one had to tell Alvaro he needed to finish a school report on time or study for a test.

“It was tough on all of us,” Ivan said, “but especially on Alvaro.”

“But,” Maria said, “Alvaro never asked for help. Never.”

The result is a parent’s dream.

In a few weeks, Alvaro will graduate from Divine Savior Academy near the top of his class and with a QuestBridge National College Match scholarship. The scholarship pairs high-achieving high school seniors from low-income families with top universities across the country. It covers tuition and fees for four years.

Alvaro attends Divine Savior Academy (DSA) with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is made possible by corporate donations to Step Up for Students. DSA is a faith-based, private pre-K-to-12 school in Doral, located a short walk from the Saenzes’ home.

Alvaro’s older sister, Sofia, is a 2017 graduate of DSA. She graduated last May with a law degree from Kent University in Canterbury, England, and is looking for a career in publishing.

Jose Pablo attends Divine Savior School (DSS) on Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities. Divine Savior School is located next to DSA and opened four years ago. Jose Pablo, now in the tenth grade, was one of the first students.

Watching his brother Jose Pablo (right) battle seizures nearly every day is one of the reasons why Alvaro wants to study biomedical engineering.

“The scholarships are a huge blessing,” Ivan said. “We can’t even begin to say how much these scholarships mean to us. My two oldest children have bright futures because of them, and with Jose Pablo, we found a place where he can thrive.”

The family immigrated from their native Bogota, Colombia in 2000, because Ivan and Maria wanted a better life for their children. That began with a faith-based education. Ivan and Maria felt DSA was the best educational setting for their children.

“They have bright futures because of Divine Savior Academy,” Ivan said.

Sofia said the academy prepared her for life after high school.

“The college counselors we had there were incredible,” she said. “Having that guidance helped me prepare to be very organized, very meticulous in college. The teachers themselves were all incredible. I have so many fond memories of so many teachers. They really dedicated themselves to making sure we had a proper education and prepared us for the world outside of our high school.”

Sofia attended Drexel University in Philadelphia for one year. But the high cost of tuition sent her to England, where a college education isn’t quite as expensive.

Alvaro was in middle school at the time and sensed the financial burden a college education could place on his family.


“When I saw what my sister went through with college, I started seeing all the difficulties the finances would be, I knew that I had to maintain a certain academic level so that I would be able to get a scholarship and achieve everything I wanted to,” he said.

In fact, Alvaro often wondered how his parents were able to send him to DSA.

“I was kind of glad that my parents had told me about the FTC scholarship,” he said. “It removed the sense of burden and gave me a great sense of appreciation honestly, that this whole time I was getting the support from this program.”

Since its inception in 2003, QuestBridge has awarded more than 14,500 scholarships, including 2,242 in 2023. Applicants must have an unweighted grade point average of 3.94 and can apply to as many as 15 schools involved in the QuestBridge program.

In addition to Boston University, Alvaro applied to Johns Hopkins University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University. He was matched with Boston University and received the acceptance email on Dec. 6.

“We were so relieved,” Maria said. “I could finally breathe.”

“The scholarship is a step forward towards reaching my dreams,” Alvaro said.

And that dream is to help find a treatment to help ease Jose Pablo and others like him wage their daily battle against epilepsy.

“I’ve spent pretty much my whole life helping him through this,” Alvaro said, “and it’s left me with this sense of duty to help others with similar conditions.”


Avatar photo

BY Roger Mooney

Roger Mooney is the marketing communications manager for Step Up For Students. He joined the organization after a career as a sports and features writer for several Florida newspapers, including the Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times.