The hardest thing, says Walentas Scholar Katherine Flores, about English? Being funny.
"[Katherine] is extraordinary. She excelled at everything, has a preternatural ability with language, and an executive function that's off the charts. And helping others is what motivates her. UVA is so lucky."Laura Lewis, ESL teacher, Burley Middle School
“In Spanish, I’m the funny friend,” giggled Flores, who enters UVA this August as a first-year nursing student, and one of just 12 Walentas Scholars chosen, “but in English, not so much.”
It’s been six years since Flores arrived in the United States with her mom, a moment when there was little to laugh about. After an unhappy marriage and three children, Flores’ mom—who’d disclosed to her husband and family that she was gay—fled domestic violence and discrimination in their native El Salvador. Their journey to the U.S. took three weeks of grueling travel by car, bus, and on foot before Flores and her mother were picked up by border patrol agents in Texas and whisked to a detention facility.
Flores, then 12, recalls guards who barked orders, chain link cages that separated children from their parents, and the crinkled aluminum blankets that did little to ward off the chilly Texas night. It was 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum, streams of Syrian refugees, Zika’s spread across the Americas, and the election of then-president Donald Trump.
Through the uncertainty, though, Flores recalled joy, too: her mom’s startled yelp at a wild jackrabbit near the Rio Grande; the detention center’s library where she pored over books, found art supplies, and listened to music; the American nurses who spoke broken, apologetic Spanish as they cared for her; the teachers who encouraged her, like Laura Lewis, an ESL teacher at Burley Middle School.
"She's extraordinary," said Lewis, who first met Flores when she was enrolled in her 7th grade English as a Second Language class, identified her for gifted courses, and recently attended her high school graduation. "She excelled in everything, has a preternatural ability with language, and an executive function that's off the charts. And helping others is what motivates her. UVA is so lucky."
Once she’d settled with her aunt and godmother in Charlottesville in June 2016, it didn’t take long for Flores to find firm footing. Though she entered seventh grade at Burley Middle School speaking no English, by eighth grade—thanks to fastidious study and a habit of transcribing pop music lyrics in a spiral notebook—she read and was mesmerized by the classics: Jack London’s To Build A Fire, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle.
“Once I started reading, nobody could stop me,” she said.
“When you have to learn a new language to survive, you have to listen carefully to others. When we share words, we share ideas, experiences, cultures. Behind every word there is a story, and what are we all but a collection of our stories?”Walentas Scholar Katherine Olivar Flores, incoming first-year nursing student and a member of the BSN Class of '26
By her first year of high school, she had enrolled in all honors-level courses. But it was in 10th grade biology—her favorite class by far—“when it hit,” she recalled. “I was finally understanding concepts, starting to speak out loud, and if a teacher would ask a question, I’d answer it. If I got it right, I’d think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve got to keep doing this.’”
She did. “I was in love with school,” Flores said. “I never had homework because I was doing it all so fast.”
When it came time to apply for college, Flores’ high school counselor nominated her for the Walentas Scholarship, which was endowed in 2020 by David Walentas, a New York real estate developer who was first in his family to attend college. Part of a $100 million gift to the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, the Walentas Scholarship provides full tuition, a stipend, and enrichment activities to outstanding first-generation undergraduate students from Virginia, Rochester, NY, and New York City. Chosen from more than 2,400 applicants by the Jefferson Scholars Foundation and a panel of UVA alumni, Flores is one of just 12 Walentas Scholars entering this fall alongside 40 Jefferson Scholars.
It's a fitting victory for Flores, who graduated at the top of her Monticello High School class in June and was chosen to deliver the graduation address. During her speech, she called herself a “word thief,” recalling her early days learning English.
“When you have to learn a new language to survive, you have to listen carefully to others,” she said. “When we share words, we share ideas, experiences, cultures. Behind every word there is a story, and what are we all but a collection of our stories?”
Flores—who hopes to complete a minor in art at UVA—ultimately plans to be a neonatal nurse. This summer, she’s working at Creciendo Juntos, which provides education and leadership development to Charlottesville’s Latinx community, before arriving at UVA in August, her “dream school,” and beginning her next chapter.
“Nurses,” she said, “get to know the stories of their patients.”