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Three of a kind
Grads take different paths with help from scholarship

LAWRENCEVILLE - Joy Choi, Simone Elder and Jose Hernandez grew up in different areas of Gwinnett County.

This week, they'll graduate from their respective high schools. And this fall, they'll each attend a different university.

But Choi, Elder and Hernandez share some characteristics. They're hard-working, high-achieving - and humble.

The three high school seniors have each been awarded the Gates Millennium Scholarship, an award that will help fund their postsecondary education through the doctoral level in certain academic areas. The award, established in 1999 by a $1 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, promotes academic excellence and provides an opportunity for outstanding minority students with significant financial need to reach their highest potential.

Elder, who is graduating from South Gwinnett High School, was hesitant to say what she thinks sets her apart from others, because she said she didn't want to sound conceited.

"I want to be successful," she said. "So I push myself and challenge myself. As a Christian, I want to be the best I can be."

Between her part-time job at Stone Mountain Park and her involvement in extracurricular activities such as the Beta Club and the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership (HOBY) organization, Elder has stayed busy. The rising Rice University student is also a member of the National Honor Society and class president.

Her fellow Gates Millennium Scholars have kept similarly busy schedules.

Peachtree Ridge senior Choi served as the Beta Club president for two years and spent many afternoons volunteering at places such as the Gwinnett Medical Center. She co-founded the Interclub Council, a group of student leaders dedicated to increasing students' service opportunities. As a member of the National Honor Society, she also helped tutor other students after school. And she played on the varsity volleyball team.

With a full extracurricular schedule, Choi said there was a bit of procrastination involved in completing her school work. But Friday, she'll walk at her commencement with highest honors - as class valedictorian. And this summer, she'll attend Harvard University, where she was offered a generous scholarship package.

Her secret to success?

Choi points to two lessons she learned in school. One was found in the pages of Anne Lamott's book, "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life." The author shares some advice her father once gave her brother, who was worried about completing a book report on birds: "Just take it bird by bird."

Another lesson came from one of Choi's teachers: "Some days you're the bug, and some days you're the windshield."

Choi said it was a "great feeling" to learn she had been named a Gates Millennium Scholar.

"I really won't have to worry about anything (financially)," Choi said. "Instead of taking on two to three jobs ... I can devote myself to learning and exploring in college."

For Hernandez, a senior at Mill Creek, working hard meant having to make sacrifices.

"All my hard work finally paid off," he said. "It was such a relief (after) all those nights having to work and not going to Friday night football games or homecoming dances."

When Hernandez was a sophomore, his father died of stomach cancer. His mother was struggling to make ends meet, so Hernandez decided to help by getting a job and working 30 hours a week.

The Gates Millennium Scholarship will help Hernandez become the first in his family to obtain a doctorate - something he said will make his mother happy.

"I know my dad would be proud, too," he said.

Hernandez, who is an assistant manager at a retail store, said he plans to major in business administration at the University of Georgia. The hardest part about leaving, he said, is that he'll miss his family: "We're so ridiculously close."

Hernandez, Elder and Choi all say they are looking forward to college.

"I've wanted to go to college since the second day of ninth grade," Elder said.

At Rice University, Elder plans to study science, probably chemistry, as her 10th-grade chemistry class was one of her favorites. Her ultimate goal is to become a medical doctor.

Choi intends to major at Harvard in urban studies, a field in which she became interested after taking Advanced Placement Human Geography in ninth grade. Urban studies is an interdisciplinary field based on engineering, environmental science and social interaction.

"I'm looking forward to learning," Choi said. "I know that sounds nerdy, but I'm looking forward to discovering new things, trying new things, meeting new people."

Hernandez said he's looking forward to what college will bring.

"You never know what an opportunity like this has in store for you," he said.

SideBar: What is a Gates Millennium Scholarship?

The Gates Millennium Scholars program, established in 1999, was initially funded by a $1 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal of the program is to promote academic excellence and to provide an opportunity for outstanding minority students with significant financial need to reach their highest potential by:

Reducing financial barriers for minority students with high academic and leadership promise who have a significant financial need,

Increasing the representation of these students in the disciplines of education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health and the sciences, where these groups are severely underrepresented,

Developing a diversified cadre of future leaders for America by facilitating successful completion of bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees, and

Providing seamless support from undergraduate through doctoral programs for students selected as Gates Scholars entering target disciplines.