Each year, the Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) Program selects 1,000 students, 11 of whom are in UC Davis’ Class of 2016.
Provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the students receive unmet need and self-help aid funding throughout their years at a university of their choice, and the program also offers graduate school funding for continuing Gates Millennium Scholars in certain areas of study. According to their website, the goal of GMS is to “promote academic excellence and to provide an opportunity for outstanding minority students with significant need to reach their highest potential.”
Although consisting of a lengthy application process that included eight essays, many of the 11 sophomore recipients said the outcome was definitely rewarding.
“From the class I came from there were a lot of really outstanding GPAs and a lot of studious people that weren’t awarded it,” said Lilia Moncada, a second-year animal science major. “The way I see it is what you wrote in those eight essays had to stand out in some way. I think they’re looking for individuals who have gone through a lot of hardships and have found a silver lining and just stuck to it no matter what.”
Originally from Arizona, the scholarship determined whether Moncada would attend an in-state university, or her top choice, which was UC Davis.
“It most definitely changed my life,” Moncada said. “Thanks to the scholarship I got to come here, if it wasn’t for that I probably would’ve stayed in Arizona.”
Moncada’s hometown, Nogales, Ariz., was recognized for having the most Gates Scholars in the U.S. Though there were only two her year, Moncada said that in years before there have been up to 10 recipients.
“Usually there’s a lot of applicants since it’s such a normal thing to get it at our school,” Moncada said. “I had so much hope, but then when I saw people getting denials I thought oh, maybe it’s not as easy.”
Moncada said finding out she had been awarded the scholarship was one of the most exciting moments of her life. She said that her friends were receiving rejection letters, but when Moncada’s arrived it was a package instead.
“And the moment I see it’s not an envelope and instead a package I started crying, my mom started crying and my grandma was there, she started crying — everyone started crying. We were so happy,” Moncada said.
Another recipient, second-year civil engineering major Brandon Brown-Maddox, believes GMS’ mission is to recognize underrepresented students.
“I feel like they basically went to find the unrepresented students who don’t necessarily have the resources that others do have,” Brown-Maddox said. “There are a lot of minority students who have the potential to do certain things but they can’t go to school because they don’t have the money for it.”
Brown-Maddox works to reach out to high school students who might qualify as Gates Scholars.
“When I talk to these students some of them have 4.0 GPAs but they don’t want to go to college because they don’t think they can afford it,” Brown-Maddox said. “So I think the people that put together the scholarship — Bill Gates and those involved — they know that there are all these brilliant students who can really contribute to the world but don’t necessarily have the funding to do so.”
Brown-Maddox was involved in various community service organizations in high school that proved his leadership abilities, including the Boys and Girls Club and the Business Academy.
“People that have gone through stuff, they’re more likely to want to help other people,” Brown-Maddox said. “The thing with this scholarship is that they want a leader who’s gone through stuff, and has been able to get through it, because they’ll be able to give back to other people.”
A third recipient, second-year biological sciences major Alexis Reyes, said she had heard about the scholarship previously from her uncle who worked at a school in Compton, Calif.
“My uncle’s a teacher in Compton and it’s not that great of an area,” Reyes said. “One day he was telling me about this student that went to Compton High School and won the Gates Scholarship and he told me, ‘You should do it when you get to that point in your life!’ And I did and I ended up getting it — I was surprised because it’s like a two to four percent chance of winning.”
Reyes not only founded the Red Cross Club at her high school, but she was also captain of her cross country and track team, an active member of the National Honor’s Society and participated in an internship at Kaiser Permanente.
“They’re looking for people who are going to be strong leaders,” Reyes said. “They want those who will make impacts in their communities whether it’s at your own university or in the workforce in the future.”
Reyes said she’s also had the chance to meet and be inspired by many other Gates Scholars.
“I met the guy from Compton that my uncle was talking about; this past winter break I helped him out at his conference,” Reyes said. “These kids from Las Vegas came and we were telling them how to pursue their education. I feel like right now the scholarship is helping me speak publicly and try things outside of my comfort zone.”
Second-year communication major Willa Kurland is yet another Gates Scholar from the Class of 2016.
“I think the scholarship shows that even from any background there are resources available for you and there are ways you can learn and grow and do really big things,” Kurland said. “You have to reach out and be willing to put yourself out there and take chances. For me, it shows me I do have leadership abilities, and I’ve always had a drive to help other people and this just eliminates any other financial worries I would have otherwise.”
The year she applied, there were over 40,000 applicants with only 1,000 receiving the scholarship.
“It’s kind of one of those things where you’re just like, wow there are 40,000 people applying and I guess I’ll apply but I can’t really expect that much. But it was worth it,” Kurland said.
The scholars also have the choice of becoming “ambassadors”: helping other hopeful recipients with their application and essays.
“I signed up to be an ambassador, and one girl I talked to applied and actually received it last year,” Kurland said. “I feel like it’s an inspiration to do everything that you can because you’ve been given so much opportunity by receiving this scholarship.”
In November of their first year at UC Davis, all 11 Class of 2016 recipients attended a mandatory conference in San Jose, Calif. where they participated in various workshops, listened to motivational speakers and got a chance to meet other Gates Scholars.
“It was really inspirational,” Kurland said. “Because at the beginning of your freshman year you’re like, ‘I’m at this giant school, I don’t know what I’m going to major in,’ so it was just cool to meet everyone and be inspired by all the new things that you learn.”
ELLIE DIERKING can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Rosa Furneaux.