WASHINGTON – Just a few weeks shy of graduation, Jasmina Rivas, a high school senior, prepared for school Thursday like she does every day in her Petworth home in Washington, D.C. She brushed her teeth, mentally ran through her school routine, grabbed a bite and wondered how she would pay for college.
Determined to pursue international relations at her first choice school, the University of Maryland in College Park, Rivas knows attendance at Maryland’s flagship public university would mean depleting her immigrant parents’ life savings. While mulling over financial options, she remembered that her guidance counselor told her to dress professionally that day for an event at a D.C. school that she did not attend.
Arriving at Benjamin Banneker High School in her best business attire, Rivas was met by a group of friends and teachers, thinking she was expected to participate in a community service event.
The confused Rivas along with six other District high school seniors were surprised to become the first students in the nation this year to receive Gates Millennium scholarships—a full-ride academic award covering all college expenses.
Standing on the stage with the white envelopes that have become their golden tickets to college, recipients gushed and grinned in the onslaught of camera flashes, inarticulate in classic red-carpet shock.
“When they called my name, I was like ‘Oh my God, is this legit?’” Rivas said. “It didn’t seem real.”
Fifty-seven high-achieving Washington, D.C., students applied for the competitive Gates scholarships, which are administered by the United Negro College Fund. The Gates awards are the nation’s largest and most visible minority scholarship program.
Only seven D.C. students were chosen: Jose Gutierrez of Saint Anselm’s Abbey School; Elzabad Kennedy of McKinley Technology High School; Jasmina Rivas of the School Without Walls; Erwin Sweetwine, Jovalee Thompson, and Mary Amaechi, all of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School; and Isaiah West of Ballou High School.
In 1999, UNCF took control of a $1.6 billion endowment fund from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that became the basis for a scholarship program promoting academic excellence among outstanding U.S. students of color with unmet financial needs.
“In today’s economy and in today’s job market … virtually every career, every good paying job requires at least a college degree,” said Dr. Michael Lomax, UNCF President and CEO, during the ceremony.
To date, Lomax said, UNCF will have distributed 14,000 scholarships for students graduating from high school from coast to coast.
Many apply—about 30,000—but few can get through the grueling application process, which includes eight essays, recommendations, a 22-page application form, and demonstrating leadership experience, said awardee Jovalee Thompson, who is deciding between the University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth College.
Students must also be members of a minority group and Pell-grant eligible to be considered for the honor.
Gates Millennium awards fund academic expenses beyond what individual institutions will cover, including room and board, books, tuition, and other fees. They are renewable year-to-year based on the student’s academic progress and full-time status.
“We want these students to focus solely on their academic success. The money helps so they don’t have to work or worry about loans,” said Larry Griffith, UNCF vice president.
Griffith said the program boasts a nearly 80 percent graduation rate in five years. Using the traditional college benchmark, the six-year graduation rate increases to 90 percent.
“We more than double the rate of graduation for students of color,” he said. “They also go on to post-baccalaureate work at higher rates,” adding that they make “wonderful contributions to their universities.”
For Banneker senior Sweetwine, the scholarship is the release his family needed from the high cost of postsecondary education. He said he was anxious about finding money for college to avoid becoming a burden.
“My sister is in college, and it’s a huge hardship for my mother. This is stress relief for her,” Sweetwine said, adding that he is considering a pre-medicine track at a number of Ivy League schools. “This opportunity has changed my whole life and is the most incredible thing that has ever happened to me.”
Lomax reminded students to share their collective success with the “people who have invested in your success,” like parents, community members, faith leaders and teachers.
Although work kept Rivas’ mother from attending, Rivas’ father dabbled with a camera to catch his daughter’s gasping moments of joy.
“I am just grateful to God. We tried hard to keep her on the right path,” the grinning father said about his daughter in Spanish. “I think she is still in shock. In a few minutes, she will probably start crying from the joy.”