Druid Hills High senior earns scholarship to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

When Druid Hills High School senior Cai Castillo-Carvaja began applying to colleges, she was just hoping to land at the right school offering the right field of study.

Little did Castillo-Carvaja know that she would soon gain entry to one of the best colleges in the country—with zero financial strings attached.

Cai Castillo-Carvaja is one of many DeKalb County School District (DCSD) seniors moving on to higher education, the workforce, and branches of the armed forces at the conclusion of the 2018-2019 school year. Castillo’s path is unique in that she will be attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC)—the country’s first public university—on a “full ride” scholarship, which takes care of expenses that include tuition, housing, meal plans, and more.

Castillo-Carvaja’s single financial obligation while attending UNC will be participating in a work-study program. The rest is taken care of through a Pell Grant ($6,000) and the university itself ($49,000).

“This feels unreal,” Castillo-Carvaja said. “I looked at what I had to pay, and it said nothing. I was screaming. I told my mom and we started crying. It was overwhelming.”

At the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, due to time constraints, Castillo-Carvaja planned to just apply to three other colleges: Texas Tech University, Georgia State University, and Agnes Scott College. After consulting with a mentor about one of her college essays, she was told her transcripts and talent could get her into many, many more, including colleges that offer full financial incentives—UNC among them.

How Castillo-Carvaja became interested in UNC has a lot to do with her passion: geology. She discovered Earth science through a summer course at Georgia State University, which quickly developed into a passion. Castillo-Carvaja is quick to recall field trips to Stone Mountain to collect xenolith, and other similar opportunities involving the great outdoors.

“I fell in love with it through the labs and the lectures,” Castillo-Carvaja said. “I just think it’s so cool. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do. I love doing this.’”

Castillo-Carvaja cannot wait to begin studying geology and begin her journey of becoming a certified rock scientist. For now, she’s looking forward to getting settled on campus and begin working on making her love for geology a career. She has already gotten a sample of campus life during a recent tour—the expenses of which were also paid for by UNC.

For her, UNC offers a unique, college-town experience that few campuses can match. The school’s ability to foster an environment of genuine enthusiasm for athletics, academics, and being a part of something bigger were major factors in Castillo’s decision to attend.

“The campus is so beautiful, and the professors I met were so kind and passionate,” Castillo-Carvaja said. “I have visited a lot of college campuses. Some were drab, some were a bit better, but everyone at UNC seemed happy and like they want to be there. There was also plenty of school spirit. I thought, ‘I love this!’”

Castillo-Carvaja admits that she will be sad to leave her family, but promises to carry their pride with her as she embarks on the next phase of her academic career. She also has the normal nervousness that accompanies a young adult moving on to the next phase of his or her life.

“I’m really nervous about being by myself for the first time and doing things on my own,” said Castillo-Carvaja. “I’ll have to find a new doctor, get a new ID. I’m really anxious!”

During her two years at Druid Hills, Castillo-Carvaja has been an active member in the Genders and Sexualities Alliance as well as the Environment Club, eventually working her way to becoming president of both. She’s proud to have made both clubs grow at an exponential rate, and that both have become reputable forces on campus.

“I’m very proud of that,” Castillo-Carvaja said. “I love coming up with new project topics.”

Growing as a person, meeting a wide variety of people, and being exposed to several opportunities are what Druid Hills has brought to the table for Castillo-Carvaja as a student. She credits the school’s diversity and teacher support system in allowing her to pursue any and all endeavors.

Cai Castillo-Carvaja“When I think of a student having determination, Cai Castillo-Carvaja is the first name that comes to my mind. She decided early on that despite personal challenges, mediocrity was not going to be her modus operandi; as such, she has consistently challenged herself by taking rigorous classes and has successfully balanced this responsibility with dual enrollment in college courses,” said Druid Hills High School teacher Carrie Staines. “She has a natural curiosity and paid attention to the smallest detail in class. Cai is always one to ask questions for clarity, but also wants to more deeply understand the content in a personal way. This led to many during-lunch conversations, especially about mental health diagnosis and treatment in AP Psychology. Cai is passionate about organizing people to action and has done an amazing job providing a safe, functional, and active space for all students. Cai is a great role model for all students and commands attention in all student groups from the high school to college classroom.”

Castillo-Carvaja advises anyone wishing to replicate her success to trust their intuition and to not be afraid to soar.

“Don’t underestimate yourself. I thought my stats were underwhelming, bad, and not good enough to get into UNC out of state—I think their out-of-state acceptance rate is 10 to 13 percent,” Castillo-Carvaja said. “Start early on applications! Have other people read your essays. Keep track of assignments. Study as much as you can. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”