At just 7 years old, Nicole Iida moved to the United States after her parents separated. Since then, her life has been filled with challenges, hard work and determination. She wants to be a neurosurgeon, after all.

But in order to follow her dreams, Iida had to battle and overcome an atypical path for a teenager, one that included emancipation, lawyers, a couple thousand dollars in legal fees and obtaining the rights to sign paperwork for her own vehicle and to open her own bank account. All of which took place during her senior year of high school.

Nicole Iida was ‘far and away’ the most qualified applicant for a Mobile West Rotary Scholarship, according to organizers, who were impressed with her triumph over personal struggles.

Nicole Iida was ‘far and away’ the most qualified applicant for a Mobile West Rotary Scholarship, according to organizers, who were impressed with her triumph over personal struggles.

“It was very difficult,” Iida said. “My senior year was kind of a mess for me. I didn’t really know how to handle all of it. The IB (International Baccalaureate) program actually taught me time management very well … it was pretty difficult to balance everything, honestly. I don’t think my senior year was really what I wanted it to be … but everybody was very supportive of me, so they helped me through.”

A native of Tokyo, Japan, Iida lived in various places around the globe, residing in Guam for the majority of her life, before moving to the U.S. with her mother in 2001.

“A lot of it was very difficult for both of us,” Iida said. “I think I reminded her of my father, so we were constantly arguing. We never got along, and she never really wanted to help me out. She was great for the first few years, but I guess, as I got older, she figured I needed to learn how to do things on my own. Eventually, it just got to the point where we couldn’t still live together and carry on normally.”

In April 2013, Iida moved out of her aunt’s house, away from her mother, and began living with a friend’s family, where she stayed until December 2013.

“I helped around the house and things like that,” Iida said. “She (the friend’s mother) was wonderful. She treated me just like a daughter. They provided me with everything.”

During those eight months with her friend’s family, Iida completed her senior year at WP Davidson High School with an unweighted/weighted GPA of 3.90/4.59, served as second lady-in-waiting for the 2013-14 Mobile Azalea Trail Court and achieved a composite score of 30 on her ACT among many other accolades while simultaneously fighting for her legal independence.

Since a Mobile County judge granted Iida’s petition for emancipation on the grounds of parental negligence, she was given all the legal responsibilities of a 19 year old – the age of majority in Alabama – at the age of 18.

“I needed to emancipate myself in order to get this, because I was kind of in a loophole to where my mom wasn’t providing for me but I couldn’t provide for myself either,” Iida said.

In her letter to the Rotary Club on behalf of her scholarship application, Iida wrote, “I am currently financing my first car, maintaining a bank account, working two part-time jobs, and, because I have little family within the country, paying for all of my expenses. Although I initially saw each of these experiences as obstructions in my life, I have learned to embrace them because I believe that they have all allowed me to develop as an individual.”

Each year, the Mobile West Rotary awards a $5,000 scholarship to an outstanding high school senior planning to attend one of the three local Mobile colleges – the University of Mobile, Spring Hill College or the University of South Alabama.

“Our scholarship is based on [academics], letters of recommendations, activities and that involves school activities,” Mobile West Rotary Scholarship Chairman Corky Goldman said. “All of the above just nailed it for her. Her activities were just unbelievable.”

In her Rotary scholarship application, Iida boasted two full pages of achievements, academic honors and awards, civic, community and school extracurricular activities as well as an extensive employment record that includes her most recent position as a project manager for Amazon, Inc., which she began in April.

But more so, Iida’s personal background caught the attention of the scholarship committee, Goldman said.

“Her letter was the thing that stuck out because it described her life growing up and the fact that her mother deserted her and that she applied for emancipation and was able to get it.”

The committee, made up of seven members, chose Iida from 21 applicants.

“She was far and away the highest selection,” Goldman said. “Of all the people who went over the scholarship application, she was tops on everybody’s list, which is highly unusual. I’ve never seen anything quite like that because it’s usually very close. We have a lot of good students applying for scholarships like that. “

Iida will begin her first semester at the University of South Alabama this fall, majoring in biomedical science with a minor in Spanish. Coincidentally, her mother and father, who both came to the U.S. to study abroad, also attended the University of South Alabama. Iida said she is happy about staying in Mobile.

“I think I found out who my friends really were, and I learned a lot about myself,” Iida said. “I think before people go through some kind of difficulty, if they don’t experience hardship, they don’t really know what they are capable of doing. I think people underestimate themselves, and I think going through these types of things really helps you figure out what you can do – push your limits, really.”