Peter Za, a senior at Cleveland High School in Southeast Portland, seems to have a permanent smile on his face. Embracing a role model status in his community, he laughed as two young residents nervously ran up to him and then around the lobby of his home at Catholic Charities’ Kateri Park, a film crew from Sallie Mae buzzing about nearby.

Months prior, Za applied for the Sallie Mae Bridging the Dream college scholarship with the assistance of Trell Anderson, Catholic Charities’ director of community development and housing. Za, an exceptional student and member of the community, received word that the Sallie Mae team was coming to Portland to film him and throw a pizza party in his honor. 

Za has endured much in his young life. Displaced by civil war in Myanmar, Za spent much of his childhood in a Thai refugee camp. Soon after moving to the United States, his father died. Though he’s faced many challenges, he persists in his determination to excel in many arenas, including academics, soccer, music and in his home community. 

On Nov. 14, 2017, residents of Kateri Park — an affordable housing complex — Catholic Charities employees and the Sallie Mae film crew gathered to hear from Sallie Mae’s senior vice president, Martha Holler. Within moments, they brought in balloons and a giant check announcing Za as the winner of a $25,000 scholarship for college. 

When asked about his plans, Za says he hopes to attend an East Coast business school and become an entrepreneur to help kids like him succeed. 

— Lauren Odderstol, digital marketing specialist for Catholic Charities