One week after her 18th birthday, West Salem High School senior Jessica Casas received a special package in the mail. Ripping open the large box, Casas found a booklet that read “Welcome to the GMS Family.” Without reading anything else, Casas rushed into the kitchen to share the news with her mother — she’d just received a coveted Gates Millennium Scholarship, which granted her full funding to attend any university of her choice.
“When I told my mom, she hugged me and said ‘Felicidades,’” Casas says. “I was really happy. Knowing that I will not have to worry about how I’m going to pay for my college education, I step back and think ‘Wow, I have so many opportunities.’”
Established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Gates Millennium Scholarship is awarded to 1,000 high achieving high school students annually and provides them with funding through graduation at their chosen universities. The program also funds graduate study for Gates scholars in particular areas of study.
“It’s a very good feeling. When I first found out the news, I could not think of anything but the great opportunity to further my education in doctoral levels,” Casas says.
Since she was a child, Casas always knew she wanted to go to college — she just didn’t know how she’d pay for it. As the child of Mexican immigrants who came to the United States when she was 10 years old, she lacked role models who had experience with American higher education.
“My parents support me and they have always said, ‘Yeah, you’re going to college,’” Casas says. “But I didn’t know how.”
Casas found the resources she needed in the Oregon State University 4-H International Camp, a program that brings minority students together during the summer to learn about accessing higher education. Casas began attending the camp in 2010.
There, Casas learned how to fill out college admission and financial aid applications and met college students who quickly became the role models she had been seeking.
“I needed that support from other students,” Casas says. “Not all students have people who have gone to college and can tell them ‘Yes, you can make it.’ My parents didn’t go to college, so having people who have gone and are now going further in their education to talk to made a big difference.”
In one of the workshops she attended, students received paper copies of the Gates Millennium Scholarship application and were given advice about applying from former Gates scholars.
“4-H camp really opens your eyes,” Casas says. “There are resources to go to school to further your education and to really succeed in life. You just have to work for them.”
Learning to say, “Yes, I can.”
Casas is not the only student whose experience at the 4-H International Camp has had a profound effect on her future. In addition to helping hundreds
of students on their paths to college, the 4-H International Camp has produced five Gates Millennium scholarship winners in the last six years.
“There is no other high school, no other 4-H program, no other club or organization I have heard of that has had five students with Gates Scholarships in six years,” says Mario Magana, the OSU Extension associate professor who coordinates the camp. “With these summer camps kids start developing the skills and the confidence that are required for them to apply for scholarships.”
Since it began in 2004, the camp has served around 300 students annually with elementary, middle and high school camps open to all Oregon students. High school students work as camp counselors for the younger students, while volunteer college students serve as role models at the high school camp.
And Magana’s approach to the camp structure is active.
“In 4-H we don’t just talk about things, we do things,” Magana says. “We don’t just talk about scholarships; we help kids learn the structure of how to apply for scholarships. We really go through everything, helping kids to understand the complete process.”
Beginning with the elementary experience, Magana shapes the camps to reinforce a message of opportunity.
“These kids don’t just develop skills, they develop the attitude of saying ‘Yes, I can,’” Magana says. “When kids realize anything can be possible is when kids start taking advantage of resources. I think these five students who received Gates scholarships have realized that anything is possible in their lives.”
Passing knowledge down
Casas says she is excited to share what she learned throughout her camp experience. By attending camps as a counselor or speaker and motivating younger students, Casas hopes to become part of the next generation of role models and inspiration.
“Having that experience as a counselor gives you a different perspective that yes, you can make a difference to a young student,” Casas says.
Magana says the camp is built on this kind of volunteerism. Former camp attendees go on to become counselors, and later teach the same workshops that helped them with their college process.
“They know how much the summer camps benefitted them and they know how much they will benefit the next generation of kids,” Magana says.
Though she is not yet sure what she wants to major in, Casas plans to attend OSU in the fall and will use her education to benefit the Latino community and other disadvantaged groups whose youth struggle to access educational resources.
“I feel like if I didn’t have people to talk to in 4-H, I don’t know what I would be doing now,” Casas says. “That made a difference in my life, and it inspires me because I really want to help other students who are struggling to go to college.”
-Story by Kayla Harr