D.C. friends win Gates scholarships, will have college costs covered
By Michael Alison Chandler
May 1 at 12:01 AM
Fernando Umanzor and Abreham Gebre have lived parallel lives.
Both came to the United States when they were 4, one from El Salvador, the other from Ethiopia. They grew up attending D.C. public schools, striving to learn English while their parents worked hourly-wage jobs in office buildings, restaurants or hotels and pushed them to excel in school. By the time they were high school seniors, they were ranked second and third in their class at Columbia Heights Education Campus.
Now, the close friends who bond over academic stresses and giant slices of pizza in Adams Morgan, have both won the Gates Millennium Scholarship.
“I think I am speaking for both of us when I say this scholarship defines everything we have been doing since we came here,” said Fernando, 17. “It makes our parents very proud.”
The scholarship, started by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 1999 to remove financial barriers to college for low-income minority students, quickly became a holy grail for students in many urban schools. It covers all college costs, including fees and living expenses, and extends through graduate school in certain fields. Nationwide, 57,000 seniors applied this year, and 1,000 earned free higher education.
Last year, two students from Banneker and one student from School Without Walls, both highly selective application schools in the District, won the award. A student from Thurgood Marshall, a public charter school, also won.
Columbia Heights Education Campus has had four Gates scholarship winners since 2008, said Joseph Talarico, an Advanced Placement English teacher who has taught Fernando and Abreham for the past two years. He also taught Fernando’s older brother, Rodrigo, who was a finalist two years ago.
The globally themed school, with nearly 1,300 students in grades six through 12, has a bilingual program and a social justice focus.
Students must apply to attend, but they don’t have to take a test or have a minimum grade point average to qualify.
The facility serves a larger population of students learning English as a second language than any other secondary school in the District.
It’s known for its focus on higher education. All students are required to take AP classes and they can enroll in college classes while they are still in high school.
Seniors spent time applying to college as part of their English classes this fall.
[Students encouraged to apply to college, while in class.]
Last year’s four-year graduation rate at CHEC was 84 percent, well above the city average of 61 percent. Talarico said the Class of 2015 is particularly strong, with more students planning to attend four-year colleges and getting accepted to reputable schools, including Howard, George Washington University and Syracuse.
Fernando is planning to attend the University of Wisconsin, where his brother goes to school. He’s interested in science and wants to major in pharmacy. He also won a scholarship through the POSSE Scholars program, which recruits promising urban teens and provides extra support at universities that admit the students in groups so they can help each other manage the stresses of college.
Abreham is staying in the District, enrolling at Georgetown, and is interested in international relations. He is part of the Community Scholars program, which provides mentoring and support. Through the program, he will start taking classes this summer to ease the transition to college.
He has been saving money for college from an after-school job at CVS. After he found out that he won the Gates scholarship, he said he would give his savings to his twin sister, who is planning to attend the University of Virginia, Talarico said.
Talarico wrote college recommendations for both students, describing them as leaders at their school and highly motivated students who are thinking and operating on a college level.
Abreham said Talarico helped them throughout the application process and was sitting with them when they submitted the final paperwork.
The complete list of Gates scholarship winners in the District and across the country will be released Friday.
Abreham and Fernando said Talarico’s classroom has become a home base for them during the past two years.
“He knows we have our own aspirations, so he gives us that extra push,” Fernando said.