Thursday, June 21, 2018

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SDSU Gates Scholars include: Back Row, left to right: Mony Chau, Fiorella Morales, Jocelyn Pacheco, Jessica Polk, Theresa Palafox; Front Row, left to right: Ronnie Cravens, Teresa Ramos SDSU Gates Scholars include: Back Row, left to right: Mony Chau, Fiorella Morales, Jocelyn Pacheco, Jessica Polk, Theresa Palafox; Front Row, left to right: Ronnie Cravens, Teresa Ramos

Success Stories from SDSU’s Gates Millennium Scholars

Aztec students have been part of this prestigious program for nearly a decade.
By Coleen L. Geraghty

For Missouri native Ronnie Cravens, the decision to become an Aztec was a combination of determination, timing and serendipity.

Determination because he never doubted that he could be the first in his family to go to college.  

Timing because the program that funds his scholarship selected its final cohort of students this year.

And serendipity because it was Cravens’ improbable friendship with an Italian exchange student that inspired his move halfway across the country to attend San Diego State University.

A freshman, Cravens is among the final class of the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholars program. It was established by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help underrepresented students earn undergraduate degrees.

Seventy-three Gates Millenium Scholars have attended SDSU since the program announced its first class in 1999. One of the earliest was Jennifer Stafford, who graduated in 2008, went on to earn a master’s degree in psychological counseling from Columbia University and is now a successful practicing psychotherapist in New York.

A trip to Italy

Cravens arrived on campus this fall determined to major in international business. He had done research in high school and learned that SDSU’s undergraduate program is ranked among the best in the country. Encouraged by a mentor, Cravens applied to SDSU and the Gates Scholars program.

Cravens’ interest in an international career emerged when he befriended Matteo Longo, an Italian exchange student at his high school. In return for English lessons, Longo taught Cravens Italian. The experience so motivated Cravens that he raised the money to visit Italy in the summer of 2015. For a month, he stayed with the Longo family in Padua and traveled around the country.   

“I went to Italy thinking my Italian was good, but it was there I really learned to speak the language,” Cravens said. “Now I’m planning to minor in Italian and study abroad for a semester.”

Living a dual life

Studying abroad was also a transformational experience for Fiorella Morales, another Gates Scholar at SDSU. In France, she studied in and later interned for the Institute of American Universities, while earning her undergraduate degree at the University of San Diego.

Morales was born in Costa Rica, and grew up in Hemet, Calif. - a “dual life,” as she described it in her Gates Scholars application. At home, she was Costa Rican; at school, she was American. When her parents returned to Costa Rica, Morales and her sisters decided to remain in the United States and attend college.

“I knew I needed a college education to achieve greater things,” she said.

This fall, Morales began a master’s degree in educational leadership with an emphasis in student affairs at the postsecondary level. Gates Scholars also receive tuition assistance for graduate study if they choose to earn degrees in science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health or computer science.  

Morales said she chose SDSU because of its “outstanding” educational leadership program and the opportunity to serve in a graduate assistant position with Chris Kjonaas, associate director for international engagement with the Division of Undergraduate Studies.

Leaving violence behind

Gates Scholar Mony Chau also began a graduate program at SDSU this fall. He majored in kinesiology as an undergraduate at SDSU and is now a student in the Graduate School of Public Health.

Chau grew up in a rough Long Beach neighborhood afflicted by gang violence. A beating left him with partial sight in his left eye. When his high school counselor gave Chau the Gates Scholars application, he didn’t think twice about applying.

While an undergraduate, Chau received a summer internship through the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins University. He was based at the University of Southern California and Cal State Los Angeles doing health-related policy work for a non-governmental organization, the Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

When he’s not in class, Chau works for the Energy Systems Technology Evaluation Program in the College of Engineering, helping student-veterans find internships. He is considering a career serving the veteran population.

Chau said his interaction with fellow Gates Scholars program is a perpetual source of inspiration.  

“Getting to know the other Gates Scholars has been invigorating,” Chau said. “It reminds you of how hard everyone has worked to become a member of this special group.”

The Gates Millennium Scholars Mentoring Program is housed in the Division of Undergraduate Studies. The goal of the program is to promote academic excellence and to provide Gates Scholars with graduate school resources and other tools to help scholars reach their highest potential at SDSU and beyond.