Proving them wrong: Full-ride Gates scholarships help disadvantaged students excel

 

Isaac Camacho spent much of middle school in detention. In eighth grade, a teacher told him: "You're gonna end up like the rest of them."

He wasn't sure what she meant by "them" — maybe his older siblings, other Mexican-Americans or eighth graders in general — but he set out to prove her wrong. And he did, earning mostly A's in high school and being named a Gates Millennium Scholar in his senior year.

Now he's going to college for free.

Isaac is one of four Portland State students with full-ride Gates scholarships, funded with a $1.6 billion grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The three other Gates scholars at PSU are Brook Thompson, Katherine Huynh and Chelsey Minthorn.

The scholarships cover all undergraduate tuition and living expenses — plus graduate school in certain subjects — for top black, Latino, Native American and Asian Pacific Islander students with significant financial need. The program allows students to use the awards at any college they choose.

Brook, a freshman, picked PSU over the University of California, Berkeley because she likes PSU’s location, Honors College, engineering program and focus on sustainability.

As a child, she saw the effect of environmental devastation on her relatives in the Yurok and Karuk tribes in Northern California. She wants to make life better for them by majoring in civil engineering and someday designing zero-emission buildings.

She’s off to a strong start: She made the Dean's List her first term and has joined the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, Concrete Canoe Team, Society of Women Engineers and Engineers Without Borders.

"I'm not just going to college for myself," Brook says. "I'm trying to improve other people's lives just as much."

Isaac, a senior majoring in criminology and criminal justice and minoring in education, plans to use his education to help more young people succeed. He works as a counselor every summer at the same 4-H camp he attended as a teenager and wants to earn a doctorate at PSU in educational leadership.

Isaac says the award allows him and the other Gates scholars to focus more on school, because they don’t have to worry about paying for school.

"I'm thankful I have nothing to stress about," Isaac says. "It's a miracle to have an opportunity like this."

— Suzanne Pardington