Dream Big: The Gates Millennium Scholars

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Each year some 21 million students select an American college or university to attend. Each year the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation selects 1,000 of these students to receive a full scholarship, renewable every year through graduation, to attend whatever college they choose. For Shayna Begay ’10 and Tenzin Lhaksampa ’15, Florida Tech topped the list of college choices.

All Gates Millennium Scholars are clearly successful academically, but then so are many Florida Tech students. What made these two young women stand out from a field of outstanding candidates? Recently we spoke with both scholars in an attempt to answer the question: why did the winners of one of the most coveted scholarships awarded in the U.S. today choose FIT?

The Gates Millennium Scholars Program is built around the concept of nurturing and supporting leaders. As the Gates Millennium Scholars Program took shape in 1999, the Gates envisioned an America whose leadership “would include 20,000 individuals, all people of color, who would make a significant impact on the future direction of the nation.”

Bill and Melinda Gates backed their vision with a $1 billion gift to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), which is a partner for the program along with the American Indian Graduate Center Scholars (AIGCS), the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF) and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF).

Florida Tech Gates Millennium Scholars Shayna Begay ’10, ’11 M.S., and Tenzin Lhaksampa ’15 have a lot in common, starting with the close family ties that are of paramount importance in their lives. They both have mastered several languages, demonstrated a passion for reaching out and helping others, are hard-working and are well respected by those who know them. In addition, as they ended their high school years and looked forward to college, they both displayed an uncommon degree of insight into what kind of college would suit them best. With the Gates Foundation eliminating the financial barriers to their college choice, Shayna and Tenzin both set their sights on finding—not the highest ranked, or the most selective, or the most prestigious Ivy League university—instead, both women set out to find the best academic program in their fields.

Shayna BegayShayna Begay ’10, ’11 M.S.

Aerospace engineer and Sandia National Laboratories employee Shayna Begay has never been one to shy away from a challenge, but completing the 11-essay application for the Gates Millennium Scholars Program and gathering the required recommendations was, according to Shayna, “a feat in itself.” But Shayna had known from a very early age that fulfilling her dreams would require a college degree.

As a child, she knew she wanted to be an aerospace engineer, and she set her sights on the stars.

Shayna, who is a member of the Navajo tribe, spent a lot of time on the reservation when she was growing up. She is a native speaker of English and Navajo, in addition to speaking Spanish, French and Italian. She has a history of seeking out rigorous academic challenges. After the excitement of spending a summer at a CalTech program for high school students, Shayna arrived back home in Colorado and enrolled in a dual-degree program offered by Fort Lewis College. She held down a job working for her dad, took a night course in astronomy and traveled back and forth from home to the college her entire senior year of high school and still maintained a 4.0 GPA.

At an early age, Shayna exhibited a passion for learning and for teaching and helping others learn. Her parents attended college—met there in fact—but had not graduated. Young Shayna was a persistent influence encouraging her mother to finish her degree, which she eventually did.

Shayna tutored fellow students in math during high school and then tutored students in a wide range of subjects while at Florida Tech. “Dr. Lisa Perdigao, my English teacher at Florida Tech, marched me right over to Marge in the tutoring center,” Shayna recalls, “and signed me up. Dr. Perdigao filled out the recommendation right then and there as I filled out the paperwork.”

As a graduate student at Florida Tech working on her master’s in aerospace engineering, Shayna, driven by her fervor for teaching, developed a nanotechnology outreach program to teach local K–12 students about the field of nanotechnology that is now a required course of study for the nanotechnology undergraduate degree at Florida Tech.

Her passion for education is what led her to select Florida Tech among all of the possible colleges willing to welcome her with open arms.

“I was spending a week visiting Cornell at the moment that Florida Tech emailed me and encouraged me to apply,” she says. “Everyone offered an engineering program, but Florida Tech offered aerospace engineering. That’s really what I wanted to do, so I applied on the Cornell computers.”

She then planned a visit to Florida with her mom, scheduling it at the same time as her senior prom.

“That was a big deal,” she insists, her voice revealing even now how much she missed that rite of passage. “But, I’m so passionate about education, and I felt I would get lost at Cornell. And I knew that I wanted a whole degree program in aerospace engineering and not just a few courses which is what most colleges were offering.”

Tenzin LhaksampaTenzin Lhaksampa ’15

For Gates Scholar Tenzin Lhaksampa, now a senior at Florida Tech, it was her college counselor who urged her forward and helped her with the application. A Tibetan in exile, Tenzin made such an impression on her middle school principal when she came to the United States and volunteered to be her teaching assistant for the Middle School Book Arts class that the principal recommended her to the Gates Foundation based upon her record of community service.

Tenzin’s journey to the United States began when she was 3 years old.

“My sister and I ran away from Tibet,” she says with the pain still resonating in her voice. “We were denied education in Tibet as a result of my father’s close ties to the Dalai Lama. My sister and I escaped to Nepal first and then came to the U.S.,” she explains. “My dad was able to follow a few years later—in the meantime we lived with my grandmother.”

Tenzin’s mother and her oldest sister still live in Tibet, unable to visit or join their family here. Tenzin has not seen them since she came to the United States 10 years ago but Skypes with them frequently.

If the story of hardship early in life didn’t impress the Gates Scholar reviewers, Tenzin’s achievements while in school, like Shayna’s, were bound to make her memorable among the applicants.

Tenzin stood out in middle school because she was an eager and compassionate volunteer—helping other students and assisting teachers in the classroom. And like Shayna, she had a flair for mastering languages.

By the time she finished high school, Tenzin was fluent in Tibetan and English with proficiency in Spanish, Nepali and Hindi.

Volunteering at the Tibetan Association of Southern California, Tenzin spent many hours helping with special events, fundraising and assisting with Sunday school.

Tenzin, who will receive her degree in forensic psychology this spring, chose Florida Tech after applying to nine different schools.

“I chose FIT because it had the best program for me,” she says quite simply. “Ever since my 7th grade science teacher taught a unit on forensic science, I was hooked. At FIT, I participated in a research group with my advisor Dr. Vanessa Edkins and now I am volunteering at The Scott Center for Autism Treatment working both in behavioral services and the Family Learning Program.”

The opportunity for her to do substantial research as an undergraduate and participate in giving back in a real way as a volunteer with autistic children are experiences Tenzin might not have identified in her college planning, but with laser-like focus, she was looking for and found, “the best program.”

A Common Passion for Learning and Inspiring Others

Shayna and Tenzin found a place where their love of learning, their leadership talents, their passion for service and their preparation for a fulfilling career suited them perfectly: Florida Tech. Tenzin’s graduation is only months away, and she is looking toward the future.

“I would like to work in law enforcement,” she says, “a job with the Bureau as a profiler would be ideal.”

She is also preparing to take the GRE in the hopes of going to graduate school and obtaining her Ph.D.

For Shayna, the choice of Florida Tech was instrumental to her career path. She credits her initial contact with her current employer, Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Florida Tech.

“Sandia reached out to me while I was a student at FIT,” she says. “After offering me a summer internship, they offered me a full-time job.”

With Sandia’s blessing she is still an integral part of the Gates program—now as a mentor to new scholars.

Thanks to the involvement of mentors like Shayna, the Gates Millennium Scholars boasts a better than average freshman and sophomore retention rate at 96 percent and a six-year graduation rate of 87 percent—well above the national average of 59 percent.  The adjustment to college for Gates Scholars is often a rocky road, but the Gates Program is proactive in tackling those issues at an annual freshman conference for which the foundation pays all expenses for the scholars’ travel and attendance.

Shayna remembers attending her first conference in Washington, D.C., and the enthusiasm of meeting other Gates Scholars for the first time.

“There are a lot of tough decisions to be made and choices you encounter,” Shayna explains. “For instance, a student who is used to going home for a Native American ceremony now finds that it conflicts with their studies. Even harder are money conflicts. Some scholars come from homeless families, and the issue of all that money going to their education while the family remains homeless can be a great source of stress.”

Sandia has also tapped Shayna’s passion for inspiring others, and she is one of the national laboratory’s leaders in Sandia’s Dream Catcher program, which is designed to: “inspire young minds through science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) experiences and engage the interest of American Indian middle and high school students.”

Inspiring young minds through STEM sounds familiar. Sounds like the High Tech-Human Touch of Florida Tech. And the Gates Millennium Scholars program emphasizing the importance of student leadership and community service? That also sounds like Florida Tech. Considering Shayna Begay’s and Tenzin Lhaksampa’s passion for learning and service, it is not surprising these two talented women were selected from thousands of others by the Gates Millennium Scholars Program to pursue their dream of obtaining the best possible education. And it is not surprising they found the best possible education the Gates Foundation could buy at Florida Tech.

—Sara Smith

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