Joliet Central High School Seniors Named USF MERIT Scholars

May 3, 2019 | Joliet, Ill.

Mercedes Hernandez and Ayeka Santoyo

Joliet Central High School seniors Mercedes Hernandez and Ayeka Santoyo have a lot in common. Both students officially graduate from Joliet Central High School  in May as members of the Class of 2019. Both students are planning to pursue careers in early education. Now, a new item can be added to the list of things they have in common – both students have been named 2019 Multicultural Education Recruitment in Teaching (MERIT) Scholars at University of St. Francis (USF).

MERIT is a partnership between USF, Joliet Township High School District 204, Joliet Public Schools District 86 and the Joliet business community. The MERIT Scholarship provides scholarship funds for qualifying students of color who major in education at USF. Recipients are required to teach in a Joliet school for either four years (Joliet Township High School District 204 seniors planning to attend USF for four years) or two years (Joliet Junior College students planning to transfer to USF for two years). Ultimately, the program is intended to help recruit, prepare, place and induct a new generation of teachers of color for Joliet’s schools. This year is a special one, as it marks the first time in the program’s six-year history that two MERIT Scholars have been named in the same year. Hernandez and Santoyo will now each receive $8,000 per year for four years and have committed to teaching in a Joliet school for four years after earning their undergraduate degrees.

Hernandez and Santoyo both knew at an early age that they wanted to become teachers, which is yet another thing they have in common. Both also look to their teachers at Joliet Central as mentors.

“Miss (Melissa) Cady has been so important to me,” Hernandez said. “Ever since I met her my sophomore year, I clicked with her. She was the person I could talk to. She would listen to me– not just like my teacher but as my friend.  She has always supported me and has always wanted the best for me. She has always wanted me to succeed.”

Santoyo feels similarly about Ms. Andrea Richardson.

“(Richardson) teaches the Child Development course at Joliet Central. Every day she comes in with a smile, regardless of the situation. She is always ready to roll,” she said.

One area in which the two students differ is that of how they came to choose USF.

“Ever since I was young, I would pass through the USF campus. One time after I visited with my class, I told my mom, ‘I want to go here.’ And now here I am ready to attend USF in the fall,” Hernandez said.

Santoyo became interested in USF through her elementary school’s participation in a reading program partnership with the university.

“When I was in first grade, I attended Farragut Elementary. USF had reading program and I came here for it. We met in the library and I thought, “When I am older I want to come here,” she said.

Both students are looking forward to the opportunities that being a MERIT Scholar will present them. For now, though, they are still letting the magnitude of the honor settle in.

“Being named a MERIT Scholar means a lot to me,” Hernandez said. “It shows how hard I worked and tells me that I should be proud of myself. I am succeeding in life and am headed toward where I want to be in the future.”

“It is a phenomenal opportunity,” added Santoyo. “It is important to be able to represent students. I always have wanted my career to help my community. This is the first, small step in a process that will take me to somewhere huge.”

The two students were formally presented with the scholarships by a USF representative at Joliet Central High School’s Senior Awards/Ivy Night event on Wednesday, May 1.

Visit for more information on the MERIT Program at USF.

The University of St. Francis, in Joliet, Ill., serves over 4,000 students nationwide, offering undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs in the arts and sciences, business, education, nursing and social work. There are over 49,000 USF alumni across the globe. For information, call 800-735-7500 or visit

University of St. Francis: Bigger thinking. Brighter purpose.