Horses have been some of Cassidy Sabral’s greatest teachers.

Cowboy, an aging breeding stock paint horse, showed her the meaning of true loyalty, waiting at the fence for her every morning and afternoon. With his devotion and eagerness to please, he taught his young teen pupil responsibility and compassion for a creature that was entirely dependent on her.

Remi, her next horse, was a thoroughbred, and through him, the freshman animal science major learned the patience and skill required for horse training. Ember, her current partner in the extreme sport of rodeo, gives Sabral her all with a big heart and deep trust, even as the horse struggles with an incurable genetic muscle disease—and together they have gone on to win numerous awards.

“[Horses] have inspired me to never give up when things get rough,” Sabral said.

Under normal circumstances, Sabral’s dream to become a large-animal veterinarian would likely be out of reach—financially. But thanks to her equine-encouraged persistence and the support of one inspired donor wishing to pay it forward, that dream is on track to becoming reality.

Sabral is a 2019–20 recipient of the University’s prestigious Bell Family Presidential Scholarship for students in agriculture and animal sciences. Established in 2013 by Oregon-based philanthropist Dan Giustina and expanded this year, the scholarship now supports five high-achieving students annually with full tuition and fees.

“Without the scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to afford college, at least with my horse,” said Sabral, who competes in rodeos around the state with Ember. “The scholarship has allowed me to go to college as well as continue doing what I’m doing outside of school.”

Portrait of Cassidy Sabral
Cassidy Sabral is one of 21 students to receive the Bell Family Presidential Scholarship since its inception in 2013. (Jason Halley / University Photographer)

Raised by a single mother and her grandmother, Sabral grew up learning how to care for animals from a young age. Since she can remember, her grandmother has been active in Butte Wildlife Rehabilitation and brought home to their small farm in Chico a variety of animals in need: dogs, cats, squirrels, raccoons, sheep, pigs, rabbits, opossums, owls, and other birds. Sabral has raised several lambs by bottle, worked on her neighbor’s ranch learning basic veterinary skills, and is currently raising a steer for her final year of 4-H to show and sell at the Silver Dollar Fair this spring.

An active board member of the Paradise Horseman’s Association, Sabral has worked with horses since she was 14, training them for rodeo events and barrel racing—another passion she inherited from her grandmother. Earlier this year, she and Ember qualified for one of 10 sponsorships in the California Gymkhana Association’s state finals, where they captured first place in her favorite event, pole bending. Every dollar Sabral makes from farm jobs and competitions goes toward caring for Ember, who has a genetic disease that causes her muscles to cramp and break down.

Finances have always been very tight for the family. Her mother and grandmother both work, but income is limited. She is also the first in her immediate family to attend college. Because her parents had no experience with the application process, she turned to her grandmother, who recently helped her cousin successfully apply to Butte College.

Together, they also looked for scholarship opportunities, hoping that Sabral’s academic strengths in high school and her extracurricular activities would make her an appealing candidate for support.

Earning the Bell Family Presidential Scholarship was truly a dream come true.

“I was really, really happy,” she said. “The scholarship, when I found out about it—not having to worry about paying for my tuition—was just amazing.”

The freedom she describes is exactly what motivated Giustina to establish the scholarship endowment in honor of his lifelong friends and mentors, Tom and Dorothy Bell, and Tom’s sisters, Claudine Bell and Helen Head. The Bells ranched thousands of acres in Oregon and California and were deeply influential in the development of Chico and the North State. They also had deep connections with Chico State, with many family members attending school here.

The Bells had no children to carry on their lineage, so after their deaths, Giustina established a scholarship program within the College of Agriculture so that their legacy would live on.

“Being able to see these folks grow—it’s a wonderful feeling and something we believe in,” Giustina said. “I learned from Tom some of the fundamentals that were important to me in life. It’s been my want to pass those things along to students and others in agriculture.”

Tom Bell believed strongly in education, sustainability, honesty, and the importance of hard work, Giustina said.

“The students in our program have those attributes,” he said. “They can come to Chico State and learn and grow as people and don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. That’s so meaningful. The only thing we ask is that they carry that forward. That’s what I learned from Tom and from my father.”

Initially funding the endowment for $2 million, this year, Giustina gifted an additional $1 million to ensure the legacy of his mentor and friends would live on in the lives of the students impacted by the scholarship. Bell Family Presidential Scholars are selected based on academic achievement, commitment to agriculture, leadership, and civic engagement. Recipients are awarded full tuition for four years.

Cassidy Sabral holds a large American flag while sitting on the back of a horse.
While Sabral ultimately hopes to specialize in equine care, she wants her education to include bovine, ovine, and caprine veterinary care, as well as all aspects of caring for horses, ranging from chiropractic care and horseshoeing to muscle health and development. (Photo courtesy of the Sabral family)

Sabral actually learned of the Bell family’s legacy years before receiving their namesake scholarship. Her neighbors, Dean and Elsie Hightower, knew the Bells and told her stories of how the sisters took care of one another throughout their lives, and of the family’s impact on agriculture and education in the area.

Last fall, she dove straight into her major, enrolling in classes including “Introduction to Animal Science” and “Veterinary Practices.” After earning straight A’s in her first semester, she’s excited to dig deeper into her studies this spring and continue to grow her knowledge.

“I wish to represent their determination to succeed and prosper and their dedication to helping the greater community,” she said.

Sabral also wants to pave the way for her younger sister, Courtney, who has her own dream of becoming a nurse one day.

“I want to create the opportunity to provide a better life for my family,” she wrote in her scholarship application letter. “I want to prove that college is an option for [Courtney], as well. … I also want to set up a bright future for my future children.”

Her long-term goal is to attend the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine to train in large animal or equine medicine. She’s researched the entrance requirements and knows exactly what it will take to make her dream a reality.

“I really want to be a veterinarian, and [CSU, Chico is] teaching me more about the things I’m really interested in,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like busy work—everything feels meaningful.”