On Fridays, Ana Portillo breathes easily. With a Monday through Thursday schedule, she enjoys a respite from the bustling hallways of Virginia Tech, using the time to adjust to college-level coursework. She considers herself lucky to have this opportunity as a first-year student double majoring in creative writing and professional and technical writing.

Portillo has already made a mark early in her academic pursuits, receiving the Department of English Distinguished Alumni Board’s scholarship. The $2,000 award is given annually to students who have a passion for the written word. When her advisor, Dawn Knight-Withers, shared the link to this scholarship, Portillo saw it as a valuable opportunity she could not afford to miss.

“I didn’t expect that I would receive it,” she said. “The essay that I wrote was very personal to me. I wrote that Virginia Tech believed in me, so I should believe in myself. And this scholarship makes me very secure in knowing that I am on the right path pursuing something that I really enjoy— and that other people believe in me.”

English faculty scholarship jurors, Ashley Reed and Joe Scallorns, reviewed numerous anonymous submissions from students.

“As a scholarship reader, I was both impressed and moved by the essay Ana submitted when applying for the Distinguished Alumni Board scholarship,” said Reed, an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies, “Her academic achievements and her commitment to creative excellence exemplify the department’s mission to shape the scholars, artists, writers, and citizens of the future.” 

Portillo’s passion for words can be traced back to her childhood and summed up as unrelenting. As a child, her love for words extended from enjoying narratives to understanding how typographical nuances, like italics indicating a character’s thoughts, can elevate meaning. She soon progressed to writing her own stories.

“When I was in third grade, my elementary school teacher had creative writing Fridays where you would share a story that you wrote to the whole class,” she said. “I did a story about a sentient pencil named Peter and the class really enjoyed it. And I thought, ‘Wow, I can make people happy by creating these fun little stories.' So, that was the moment I knew I really wanted to write.”

But with many good stories, there is a plot twist. Portillo’s is no different. During her teenage years, she began having doubts about pursuing writing as a career due to concerns about financial stability. In her search for alternate career paths, she considered becoming a teacher or an architect. Although she took a class to learn architecture modeling software, her passion for storytelling never faltered.

Her commitment to writing was solidified during an advanced placement literature course in high school, which was further reinforced when she helped her friends write a short film. These experiences made her realize that writing was her true calling.

Choosing Virginia Tech was a deliberate decision for Portillo. The opportunity to major in creative writing while also studying professional and technical writing offered her the perfect balance between nourishing her creative side and having a professional foundation for her aspiration of becoming an editor and author. During a visit to Virginia Tech, she said she felt welcomed and at ease. Being able to ask English professors questions about the program gave her a sense of security, affirming her belief that the university would provide the ideal environment to explore her creativity and prepare for her future career.

And exploring opportunities goes beyond classroom opportunities for Portillo. There is the other side of the college experience — student organizations. There is a broad swath of literary and creative endeavors that can accentuate a student’s time at the university. Through these creative communities, Portillo has found a strong sense of belonging. She may only be in her first semester, but she is a culture writer and online editor for Elevate Magazine, a newly-established literary and arts magazine that uplifts minorities' voices. She is also a copy assistant for Collegiate Times, a photography editor for the student-run literary and art endeavor, Silhouette Magazine. In addition, she is a member of Kids Can Write, where she serves as a mentor for younger writers helping them to self-publish their work. The latter resonates with her younger self, who created Peter the Pencil and thought anything was possible. She looks forward to helping another generation find satisfaction in sharing their stories. She believes these experiences will help her hone her own craft and enrich her time at the university.

“Writing stories that showcase specific experiences to others brings me a sense of purpose unlike anything else,” Portillo wrote in her scholarship application, “So, I took a chance. Virginia Tech believed in me, and what I thought was an unrealistic dream was suddenly achievable. I cannot see myself being anywhere else but in Virginia Tech’s English department, which has delivered so much more to the cliché but painfully earnest promise I made to myself: follow what you love.”

Written by Leslie King