Five years of caddying at the LaGrange Country Club along with good grades at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, where Ayala graduated from in May, helped her land one of 240, four-year college scholarships awarded this year from the Evans Scholarship Foundation.
Ayala, an 18-year-old from Waukegan, started at Marquette University last month, becoming the first in her family to attend a four-year university.
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Ayala's father, Modesto, died in 2007, which was the same year her mom, Columba, was laid off. A demonstrated financial need and outstanding character are the other requirements for scholarship applicants.
Ayala wants to major in psychology and wherever her path takes her after college, But she also wants to give back to the community.
"The caddying experience really got me to be more active. Caddying was a really, really great job to open me up to people and professional adults," she said. "It's the best thing that ever happened to me. I really think I would be at a community college right now if it wasn't for the Evans Scholarship. It would be really hard."
Caddies and the Evans Scholarship Program are in the spotlight at the BMW Championship that began Thursday at Conway Farms in Lake Forest. Proceeds from two of the pro-amateur events help fund the scholarship program, which will provide full tuition and housing for those 240 Evans Scholars.
The Evans program has been in place since 1930 and is the nation's largest privately funded scholarship program. The Western Golf Association, which runs the tournament, says more than 9,600 caddies have graduated from college since the program began.
Elk Grove Village twins Ashley and Nick Kraus, 18, also won Evans Scholarships. Graduates of Conant High School in Hoffman Estates in May, the twins lost their father, Steven, when they were just 5.
Their older brother, Zack, 21, also earned an Evans Scholarship and is a senior at the University of Illinois.
For Nick Kraus, who began attending Indiana University last month to study finance and accounting at the Kelley Business School, the road the scholarship began when he was 13.
That's when his mom took him to enter a lottery for a chance to caddie at the Medinah Country Club. Nick was an alternate, so he didn't get a chance to caddie until mid-July.
"I love the sport of golf. I enjoy watching people play," he said. "When I was a caddie, I tried to be the best caddie that I could. Teamwork is a huge thing in caddying."
Ashley Kraus is attending Purdue University and majoring in nursing. She recalls frequent hospital visits when her father was sick and wants to helps others with her degree.
Ashley also started caddying when she was 13.
"I didn't know anything about golf when I first went. It was really nerve racking. I've grown to love it a lot. It's really taught me leadership," says Ashley, who noted caddying taught her patience and mentoring skills. "I learned a lot about myself. It was able to teach me a lot about my strengths and working with people."
Without the scholarship, she said, "My mom would not have been able to afford putting all of us through college."
Going into the selection process, both Ashley and Nick thought if one of them won a scholarship, it probably meant the other one would not. But they both met the criteria and excelled during a panel interview last November.
"I was ecstatic," Nick recalled. "I definitely would have felt bad if she didn't get it."
Ashley said the journey taught her a lot about herself -- and life.
"Going for the scholarship, it really taught me the meaning of working for something. Because that's all I did," she said. "It truly taught me the meaning of hard work. To be able to share it with my brother makes it all the more special.
"It really is an honor and privilege to get the scholarship. It's not just something you can caddie for a year and get. It's about the people that you meet, it's the activities you do as a scholar. Caddying is a great program, and the Evans Scholars is a great foundation."