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  • Christine Clark

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  • Christine Clark

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A Ticket to a Better Future

Students recount how Gates Millennium Scholarships opened doors to education


Lindsay Dacuan and Sandra Iraheta

Only three years ago, UC San Diego freshman Betelhem Kifle was living in her home country of Ethiopia, and although no one in her family had gone to college before, she knew she was destined to get a great education.

“My mother wanted to come to the U.S. to give her children a better future and the opportunity to get a job and go to college,” Kifle said. “When we got to the U.S., my mother wasn’t working yet. I knew I had to apply for scholarships. At first, I was intimidated by the process, but when I won the Gates Millennium Scholarship, I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my family’s shoulders.”

Kifle was one of the many UC San Diego Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) who attended a special reception for outstanding students May 1. The event, celebrated the academic achievement of UC San Diego’s most extraordinary students, including the university’s South Central Scholars, Chancellor’s Scholars and students from the students from the Barrio Logan College Institute.

The Gates Millennium Scholars program annually awards “good through graduation” scholarships to 1,000 talented students nationwide for use at any college or university of their choice from undergraduate through graduate school. The scholarships were established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to provide support for ethnically underrepresented groups who are at a significant economic disadvantage. The students must have high academic and leadership promise and a demonstrated dedication to community service.


Lana Le and Jorge Alcaraz

“We salute you,” UC San Diego Chancellor Marye Anne Fox said. “Every one of you is a bright motivated student who has substantial accomplishments.”

Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Penny Rue echoed Fox’s sentiment and spoke about UC San Diego’s commitment to access.

“Seeing all of you reminds me of the phrase ‘it takes a village,’” Rue said. “One of the reasons UC San Diego was ranked the top university in the nation by the Washington Monthly is because of our social mobility. One-third of UC San Diego’s students are the first to attend a four-year college and two-thirds of our students receive some form of financial aid.”

For the past ten years, UC San Diego has seen a steady increase in GMS students and so far more than $6.5 million has been awarded to undergraduate and graduate Gates Scholars at UC San Diego.

For Sandra Iraheta, a first-generation student of Santa Barbara, being awarded the Gates Scholarship was a dream come true. “I remember opening the envelope and wanting to make sure it was not a joke,” Iraheta said. “It helped my family out tremendously. I believe I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Gates Scholarship.”

Iraheta and Kifle are similar to other Gates Scholars in their pursuit to help others. “I had a lot of leadership experiences in high school,” Iraheta said. “I try to be a better role model so that I can help others.”



GMS student Lana Le also had a lot of community service and leadership experience in high school, but she never thought she would win the Gates Scholarship. “I thought it was so intimidating,” Le said. “But my older sister made me apply and it paid off—I am the first in my family to go to college. Financially, I knew I had to get scholarships because most of my siblings now have their own family and my parents are retired.”

Le added that there is a lot more to being a Gates Scholar than receiving money to go to college. “We get support both financially and emotionally,” she said. “The UC San Diego Gates Millennium Scholar Association helps build a campus-based community among Gates Millennium Scholars by assisting GMS students with their academic studies, organizing social networking events and connecting GMS students with faculty, staff, other organizations and Gates alumni.

“We all understand each other,” Le said. “We all have similar backgrounds and have overcome hardships. We’re also engaged in leadership—some of us even ran against each other in the Associated Students elections.”

GMS student Edith Gastelum of Chula Vista agreed. “We get help in every aspect to make sure we’re OK and can graduate,” Gastelum said. “This experience taught me that since I have been helped out by others, I want to give back. I try to let young people in my community learn about going to college. It’s my way to make students aware of the opportunities that are out there.”

For more information on the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, go to

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