The honors keep pouring in for one Northampton Community College (NCC) student who aspires to work in biotechnology and genetic engineering.  Sthephanil Salazar, 32, earned the ESSA Bank and Trust Foundation Annual Scholarship, which will enable her to continue her studies while working full-time, and keep sending money to her parents and twelve-year-old son, Jordi, in Guatemala. 

“I was excited because it was very hard for me when I first started,” Salazar said, “I’m very grateful for the opportunity. It inspires me.” 

Salazar enrolled at NCC just before the pandemic forced her to adapt to virtual learning for herself and her six-year old daughter, Victoria, said her advisor, Catherine Kehler. Salazar overcame the COVID-related challenges to earn a place on the Dean’s List and a 3.92 grade point average. 

“She’s essentially the guardian who determines whether someone gets sick or not.”

Johnathan Wilson, Premium Waters

In addition, she is October’s employee of the month at Premium Waters, Allentown, where she works as a micro-technician analyzing samples for such contaminants as e-coli, yeast, and mold. She earned the honor for writing fifteen sets of standard operating procedures when asked to write only three, said her supervisor, Johnathan Wilson, quality assurance and food safety manager. Wilson said he hired Salazar ten months ago for her drive, confidence, emotional intelligence, and passion for reading scientific journals.  

NCC student Sthephanil Salazar. Photo by Randy Monceaux.

Salazar brings the same heart and determination to her academic work.  

“She’s very empathetic. She’s also very engaged in what she’s doing, which is very pleasant as a teacher,” said NCC English professor Michelle Blease, whom Salazar credits with teaching her how to write confidently even in a second language. 

Knowing no English, Salazar immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala ten years ago. She learned to speak fluently using a bilingual dictionary to help her decipher the words in books written for native speakers. Watching subtitled anglophone movies sped her progress and she naturally mastered the language through immersion.  

“It’s like a switch that you just turn on,” Salazar said. 

Salazar had started college in Guatemala but left her studies when she became a single mother to her son, Jordi, now 12.  In 2010, she joined her sister in Florida and found American life isolating despite her developing conversational ability.  

“People here don’t talk to their neighbors. They don’t even know their names. It alienates you,” said Salazar. She keeps in touch with family and friends in Guatemala through video chats but had to cancel this year’s planned visit due to the pandemic. 

Soon after arriving in the U.S., Salazar found work babysitting her sister’s friends’ children before moving to Allentown in 2013 to live closer to her aunt.  After receiving her green card, she worked as a housekeeper and later accepted a position in a department that built chassis for Mack Trucks. Her current job testing water quality closely aligns with her lifelong goal of helping society through science. 

“She’s essentially the guardian who determines whether someone gets sick or not,” Wilson said. 

After completing her general education requirements at NCC, Salazar plans to transfer to Cedar Crest College, Allentown, to pursue a bachelor’s degree in genetic engineering and biotechnology. She hopes to work in a laboratory developing innovative medical treatments. 

“You can create new medicine and help people,” Salazar said.  

A desire to surround herself with others who share her passion for helping motivated Salazar to run in the first race hosted by the nonprofit Clean Water Kenya to raise money to deliver filters to the Masai people, who often rely on standing water for drinking. She arranged for her employer to donate 200 cases of water to the event and plans to participate again next year. 

Salazar’s achievements and compassion stem from her commitment to learning from adversity and having faith that tenacity will lead to her improving the world, she said. 

“This is my philosophy: do what you can with what you have where you are,” said Salazar.