Joanne Ignacio is beating the odds.
The 50-year-old Navajo woman from Crownpoint, New Mexico was selected from a pool of more than 13,000 applicants for the 2013 Noodle Education Scholarship. Ignacio plans to use the $4,000 to help finish a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Navajo Technical College—something she started 30 years ago.
Ignacio also wants to help her children stay in school. Her son, 26, wants to weld and her daughter, 20, wants to be a teacher.
“I don’t want to give up, and I don’t want them to give up,” she said. “It’s amazing what education can do. It opens doors.”
Ignacio grew up in California and visited her grandparents in New Mexico every summer, where she helped herd more than 500 sheep. She dropped out of college in 1983 when her first daughter was born. The infant lived for only 15 hours, but Ignacio didn’t return to her classes. She had two more children and worked in a daycare center and as a Head Start teacher. In 1998, she became a full-time caretaker for her mother, who died in 2006.
“After my mom passed, I lost it,” she said. “I was the backbone of the family, and I didn’t know what I was doing with myself.”
Ignacio went to the public library and used the Internet to search for colleges. She returned to school three years ago, and since has held internships at NASA and the National Science Foundation.
Though she’s more than halfway done with her degree, Ignacio still faces daunting challenges. She recently lost her house in Crownpoint and moved in with her son in Sanders, Arizona. She lacks regular Internet access and is looking for a vehicle so she can commute to school, roughly 100 miles away.
She registered at Noodle Education to look for internships and other resources, she said. When she learned she got the scholarship, she was speechless.
“It was my mom’s last wish that I go back to school,” she said. “When they told me I got the scholarship, I thought it was my mom up there looking out for me, right when I needed it.”
Noodle Education, a free, life-long education search engine, connects users to information and interactive learning tools. It launched the scholarship program to help raise awareness and celebrate life-long learners, said Carolyn Englar, community manager at Noodle.
“We wanted to encourage people to visit our site and to show their support,” she said. “Everyone deserves an education and $4,000 can go a long way.”
The money comes with no strings attached, Englar said. The contest was open to anyone age 13 and older, and Ignacio’s name was selected at random.
Her story illustrates Noodle’s mission perfectly, said John Katzman, founder and chairman of the search engine.
“When we first created this scholarship, we knew it would be open to everyone and that the winner could use the prize however they chose,” he said. “We couldn’t be more thrilled that Joanne, a woman who clearly has a deep passion for both education and technology, was the winner.”
Noodle is an online database that features more than 130,000 schools and includes more than 350,000 learning resources, such as educational videos for parents helping students with homework. It eliminates many of the obstacles to education, Katzman said.
“The path to a good education starts with understanding what resources are available,” he said.
The site connects users with all things educational, Katzman said, from finding the right high school to transitioning back to school as an adult. It provides online tutoring videos and even connects athletes to lacrosse coaches, he said.
“In the U.S., we often take smart, capable students who could build or do anything and never show them the path to realizing that promise,” he said. “All students need to believe that they deserve a top-rate education.”
Ignacio plans to graduate near the top of her class and work as a web designer or programmer.
“It was always my dream that when I graduated from high school I was going to get into college and do something with computers,” she said. “If I can do it, anyone can.”