Two students at Metropolitan Community College-Blue River, Joshua Gray and Eli Salazar, have been named 2017 Coca-Cola Leaders of Promise Scholars, an honor that comes with a $1,000 scholarship.

Of 200 Coca-Cola scholarships awarded to Phi Theta Kappa members across the country, 25 are specifically for veterans or active members of the military. Gray is in that group. Phi Theta Kappa is an international academic honor society for community college students.

Gray, 26, of Independence, is working on an associate in engineering degree at MCC-Blue River. He is also president of the Phi Theta Kappa chapter there. He attended several high schools, graduating in 2010 from Leonardtown High School in Maryland.

After enlisting in the Marine Corps at 19, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, as a field artillery cannoneer. He was deployed to Kajaki Dam, Afghanistan, from October 2011 to May 2012 as minesweeper and point man of a rifle company. Upon returning from Afghanistan, he continued working as a range coach until he left the military.

After MCC, Gray plans to transfer to a four-year university to pursue a mechanical engineering degree with a focus on biomedical applications. After that he'd like to earn a master's degree in biomedical engineering.

He decided on his degree path midway through his deployment in Afghanistan, which he describes as "extremely kinetic."

"I watched more than a few of my friends get injured during combat operations," Gray says.

"I had originally planned on staying in the military and trying out for either intelligence or special forces. But one day on post, I read a magazine article explaining that robotic prostheses were feasible, but there's not enough people working on them. At that moment I decided that I would help develop robotic prostheses to provide my brothers-in-arms, and anybody else suffering from physical disabilities, a second chance at life through robotic limbs, prosthetic pancreases and anything else that biomedical engineering can help fix."

He is also a writer (his short story "Firewater" will be published in Nota Bene, a Phi Theta Kappa literary journal), he trains in mixed martial arts, and he holds down a full-time security job in addition to going to college.

• Salazar, 19, of Blue Springs, is working on an associate in arts degree at MCC-Blue River. After graduating, he plans to transfer to Missouri State University in Springfield to double-major in actuary mathematics and general mathematics.

"I'll probably end up being an actuary or some sort of mathematics contractor," he says. But he also enjoys writing and public speaking, so he'd like to be published and pursue his other talents as well.

Salazar says he almost didn't graduate from Blue Springs South High School in 2016. "I had problems with authority and it was really tough for me," he says. "But I came to college and (decided) I want to do it right this time, and I did. Nothing's stopping me yet."

At Blue River, in addition to being a Phi Theta Kappa member, he has been a student leader and has volunteered at the campus' annual All for the Children event and at the nearby Great Plains SPCA shelter. "I have a lot of fun walking dogs, playing with the kittens and washing dishes."

He is a campus math tutor. He also works as a supplemental instruction leader in two math classes. "Wanting to go into mathematics, it really helps to work alongside other mathematicians, and one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it," he says.

 

The scholarships and Phi Theta Kappa

The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation provides $200,000 in funding for the scholarships, with $25,000 set aside for members who are veterans or active members of the U.S. military.

The Coca-Cola Leaders of Promise Scholarship Program, launched in 2001, helps new Phi Theta Kappa members defray educational expenses while enrolled in associate degree programs. Scholars are also encouraged to assume leadership roles by participating in society programs and are selected based on scholastic achievement, community service and leadership potential. Nearly 1,000 applications were received this year.

Phi Theta Kappa recognizes the academic achievement of community college students and helps them to grow as scholars and leaders. The society is made up of more than 3 million members and nearly 1,300 chapters in nine nations. Learn more at ptk.org.