Story sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company

Adan Gonzalez remembers flying to Atlanta to interview with the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation. He remembers traveling alone on a plane for the first time in his life. He remembers nervously telling a panel of interviewers about his dreams.

He told them he wanted to be mayor of Dallas one day.

“I remember this gentleman, that he — I remember he got up and he took off his tie, and he said, ‘Here you go. I give this to you because I believe in you,’” Gonzalez said. “I think a lot of times in my life, a lot of people have believed in me before I believed in myself.”

Gonzalez still has that tie. He also has an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and a graduate degree from Harvard University — and he’s part of a network of thousands of Coca-Cola Scholars who are working to change the world.

For Gonzalez, changing the world starts with empowering kids in the low-income community of Oak Cliff, Texas, where he grew up. After graduating from Harvard, he came home and started the Puede Network, a leadership development program for young people.

Adan Gonzalez works with children in Dallas, Tex., through the Puede Network.

Gonzalez recalls seeing his dad and brother injured by gunfire when he was young. He recalls that there wasn’t always enough food to eat at school, and that his parents struggled to pay the rent. Now he’s working on making sure that the kids in the Puede Network can have the same successes he’s had.

“For me, it happened by accident and by chance,” Gonzalez said. “There's no reason for it to happen to my kids by accident.”

He said he’s always looking for a younger version of himself — a kid who needs someone to believe in them.

“I'll take off my tie,” Gonzalez said. “This is what someone did for me, and that's what I'll do. I'll hand them my tie because someone believed in me when I didn’t even know what I was about to go into.”

PART OF A MISSION

Since launching in 1986, the Coca-Cola Scholars program has awarded more than $63 million in scholarships to approximately 5,900 students. Ultimately, the program is designed to support students a lot like Gonzalez: bright young people with limitless potential who feel called to serve their communities.

“They choose to go back and empower and inspire and make better a community of people that they really love,” said Jane Hopkins, executive vice president at the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation.

About $3.4 million in scholarships are awarded to more than 1,400 students every year, all of whom have demonstrated a commitment to community service. The foundation’s alumni network includes more than 100 Fullbright, Rhodes and Marshall Scholars, and more than 300 nonprofit founders, presidents and board members.

But the actual scholarship isn’t the only way Coca-Cola invests in the students’ lives. The program regularly organizes alumni events and service projects to bring scholars together, including a leadership summit in Atlanta every five years.

“We aim to stay in their lives for as long as they’ll have us,” Hopkins said.

‘IT ALSO MEANS BEING CONNECTED’

Rocio Ortega credits the Coca-Cola Scholars program for helping her achieve her goals.

Rocio Ortega, a first-generation Mexican American from East Los Angeles, found out about Coca-Cola Scholars when she visited her high school’s college center looking for help. Like many young people in her community, she wanted to go to college, but she wasn’t sure how to make the puzzle pieces fit together.

“The will is definitely there in our community, but we need people and supporters who are out there who are willing to invest in our education,” she said.

After being awarded the scholarship, Ortega went on to graduate from Wellesley College. She now has her dream job working for Girl Up at the United Nations Foundation, a Washington D.C. nonprofit that seeks to empower girls all over the world.

Rocio Ortega helps empower girls worldwide through her work with Girl Up at the United Nations Foundation.

“Being able to give back is probably one of the best feelings in the world,” Ortega said. “And that’s something that I found at the Coca-Cola Scholar’s Foundation, or anyone you meet that works there, really. This big commitment to service.”

Ortega said the being a Coca-Cola Scholar has done far more than just pay her college tuition. Through the program’s national and regional events, she’s met mentors and fellow scholars who have inspired and supported her.

“It goes beyond just being financial support,” she said. “It also means being connected to other Coke scholars in your area.”

To learn more about the Coca-Cola Scholars program visit: http://www.coca-colascholarsfoundation.org/

The Coca-Cola Foundation: Supporting Education is a Priority

Education has been a cornerstone of The Coca-Cola Foundation’s philanthropy since it was established in 1984 by then Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Roberto Goizueta.

“We know that education creates opportunities and changes lives,” says Helen Smith Price, executive director of the Coca-Cola Foundation. “It’s one of the ways in which we make a unique difference in the community.”

The Coca-Cola Company’s scholarship programs in partnership with the Coca-Cola Scholar’s Foundation have awarded over $100 million to scholars across the country.