Inside the fanciful rooms of Loeb House, people swarmed around a select cadre of students — most were dressed casually, with tired end-of-semester eyes, but all sharing one unique bond: They are Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS).
The GMS Program National Advisory Council meeting descended on Harvard on Tuesday (May 19) for the first time in its 10-year history. Founded in 1999 by a $1 billion grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the program promotes academic excellence by providing significant financial aid to outstanding minority students.
Harvard President Drew Faust mingled among the scholars, one of whom was Henry Luu ’11, who was excited to learn of her arrival. “I didn’t know she was coming!” he exclaimed.
Luu, a human evolutionary biology concentrator originally from Cambodia, tells a heartening story: His parents fled from Khmer Rouge oppression to Los Angeles, where he grew up. He applied to the program his senior year in high school and upon news of his acceptance, he recalled the feeling as “happiness on top of happiness.”
“First I found out I got into Harvard, then GMS,” said Luu, who comes from a family of 14. “My parents worked their way up. We help each other out,” he said.
Jenny Patten, a graduate student in the Harvard School of Public Health studying health policy and management, was first told of the GMS program as a senior in high school in Oakland, Calif. She is part of the San Carlos Apache tribe, and is soon returning to Oakland for the summer to work at a Native American health clinic. “It’s a dream come true,” she said of the opportunities granted to her by the GMS program.
“I’d heard snippets about [the GMS program] from my school counselor,” said Athena Lao ’12, a classics concentrator from Athens, Ga. But Lao was originally daunted by the comprehensive application process (which requires 10 essays from applicants). With college deadlines looming, she said, “I didn’t know if I could come up with a really good application.”
Lao is just one of many GMS scholars galvanized by their distinctive honor and who plan to “pay it forward,” by becoming leaders, personally and professionally. She is also pre-med, and hopes to enter into primary care, an area she believes needs more doctors.
“Most people enter into other fields for the money,” said Lao. “I think we need more primary care physicians.”
Each year the GMS program spends more than $500 million to support its scholars. The program provides funds for undergraduate schooling and graduate schooling, from freshman through Ph.D.’s. The GMS program hopes to increase the representation of African-American, American Indian/Alaska native, Asian Pacific Islander American, and Hispanic American students in fields such as computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health, and the sciences — fields where these groups are underrepresented.
“I want to say thank you and congratulations to the GMS program,” said Faust. “We at Harvard are deeply committed to the values of access and diversity that the program represents.”
To date, Harvard has had 201 GMS scholars, the latest being Linda Zhang ’12 and Dian Yu ’11. “That’s a marvelous number and we look forward to adding to it,” said Faust.
But for the GMS scholars, being a leader takes a lot of hard work and affords little rest. “I just rolled out of bed at 5:25,” said Luu of the 5:30 p.m. reception. “I had a three-hour final this morning. I needed a little nap.”