Kenya Andrews was at the dentist, fielding text messages from her school counselor and anxiously waiting to check her mailbox. It was the scariest moment of her life.
Ive never seen a mailbox so scary, she said.
Christine Okaro was waiting when the postal worker showed up at her mailbox, stuffing it with small envelopes. Then, the postal worker came back -- she had forgotten one. Okaro started screaming.
Ashley Washington had been checking her mailbox every day. She knew other students across the nation already had received their letters, and she had convinced herself that letter would never come for her. But it did.
It was really surreal, she said.
The three Central High School seniors were overcome with emotion the day they learned their futures would be funded. They each received a $250,000 scholarship from the Gates Millennium Scholars Program -- a rarity for any student but especially for three students from the same school. One other Bibb County student has earned the prestigious scholarship. In 2011, Thelron Pleas, also a Central High student, was deemed a Gates Millennium Scholar.
I was dizzy, school counselor Dorothy Krakow said about the moment she learned all three students had won. It was one right after the other.
The program, which is funded by a $1.6 billion grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, covers an undergraduate education for 1,000 outstanding students with financial needs. The students must be minorities, have at least a 3.3 grade point average and have proven their leadership skills through community service or extracurricular activities, according to the scholarship guidelines.
You think about 1,000 students across the country, and three are right here, Krakow said.
The funds will cover the students tuition, fees, books and living expenses, and they can request more money for graduate school if they enter specific programs.
The Central High students spent more than a month writing eight essays, securing recommendations and filling out an in-depth application for the scholarship. Now they have the freedom to pursue their education without worrying about finances.
Weve always been told the skys the limit, Okaro said. But you never really understand what that means until this happens to you.
It means the students have the opportunity to attend top-rated schools and go on to make an impact. Okaro is leaning toward attending Brown University, where she plans to pursue an economics degree with a concentration in public health. She always wanted to be a doctor, but she yearns to travel. Her plan is to analyze issues in poor countries and offer assistance.
Im Nigerian, and Ive been there several times, she said. Ive seen the problems that stem from not having adequate health care and also economics.
She already has a jump start after volunteering last year at a local breast cancer center and this year at a pediatric center. She has learned how to read MRI scans, perform breast exams, record vital signs and other skills. She has volunteered for organizations, including Special Olympics and Kiva, a company that lends money to poverty-stricken borrowers across the globe.
Washington also plans to attend Brown University, and major in biology and Spanish. Her goal is to become a bilingual neonatologist, who specializes in the medical care of sick newborns.
I knew I wanted to make an impact on somebodys life, she said. What better way to impact a life than to make sure somebody can live that life?
And she wants to effectively treat Hispanic patients who cannot speak English. Its a passion she has developed in high school, as she spends time tutoring children who speak little English. She recently tutored a child who hated math so much that he wanted to go back in time and prevent the subject from being invented, Washington said. After some tutoring sessions, the child became jealous when his brother got more math problems than he did.
It makes it worth it in the end, said Washington, who volunteers with an organization that helps immigrants gain citizenship.
Andrews, who loves technology, plans to seek a degree in computer science from Spelman College and a degree in computer engineering from Georgia Tech. She is no stranger to high-tech programs. Andrews invented a fruit-powered calculator, which operated using citrus juice from a lemon, for a science fair project. She also operates two websites: her own and one for her fathers photography.
She also spends her time volunteering for organizations, such as Relay for Life and Invisible Children, and tutoring students in chemistry and anatomy.
Kids these days, they do not want to be in school. They hate school, she said. I like seeing kids that want to be in school.
Those service projects gave the three students a boost when applying for the Gates Millennium scholarship. But it wasnt the only qualification. They have worked hard throughout the years to keep their grades up and make academic accomplishments.
Both Okaro and Washington are in the International Baccalaureate program, and Andrews participates in the Fine Arts program. They are all involved in extracurricular activities and school clubs.
High school has definitely been a challenge, Okaro said. We do spend most of the day working, volunteering and being in extracurricular activities.
There is little time for much else, but the students, in many ways, still are typical teenagers. Andrews enjoys shopping and dancing. Washington likes video games and music. Okaro likes to hang out with her friends, who help relieve the stress of hard work, she said.
But thanks to the Gates Millennium scholarship, the students have one less issue to worry about.
We no longer have to worry about paying for school, Okaro said. We are able to choose our path in life.