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Some Portland students win big in college game

Seniors at Wilson, Grant land National Merit, Gates Foundation awards
by: JIM CLARK, Grant High senior Antoinette Myers has won a Gates Millennium Scholarship, which pays all unmet financial needs for college and graduate school.

For as long as she can remember, Antoinette Myers says her mother pushed her to excel.

'I didn't go outside and play until I read a page of the dictionary,' she recalls. 'I knew how to read at age 4.'

Now a Grant High School senior who's served the past year as the student representative on the Portland school board, Myers, 17, is getting the ultimate reward for her academic diligence.

She's one of seven Portland Public Schools recipients this year of the coveted Gates Millennium Scholarship, a competitive award for minority students that covers all of a student's unmet financial needs in their undergraduate, graduate and doctoral studies.

The six other recipients this year are Du Lam of Franklin High School, Grace Muange and Amin Tuffa of Jefferson, Anh-Thu Nguyen of Benson, Luccie Vu Phan of Madison, and Amanda Anderson of Marshall.

For Myers, it was a dream come true. 'We were just like, 'Oh my gosh, no!' ' says Myers, who received the news over spring break with her mother, whom she lives with. 'We did that for days.'

With just a little more than a month to go in the school year, college-bound seniors across the district now are piecing together their scholarship packages and sending acceptance letters to the institutions they'll attend in the fall.

Myers' chance at higher education came in spite of attending 10 different schools throughout the years, bouncing between her mom in Los Angeles and her dad in Washington, D.C.

Finally, she moved with her mother to Portland in 2002, to be shocked by two things: the weather and the whiteness.

'I didn't understand I was a student of color until I came to Portland,' she said.

Binnsmead Middle School wasn't so bad, she said, because it's one of the most diverse schools in the district - just about evenly split among white, Hispanic and black.

Grant is one-fifth black, which means Myers has been the only or one of just a few black kids in any given class.

But she said she has settled into a groove, managing to take on student leadership positions there, win election to the school board and become immersed in its policy discussions, and hold a 3.6 grade-point average with a course load that includes advanced Spanish, third-year Latin, and Advanced Placement economics and calculus.

Next year, while many of her friends are attending historically black colleges and universities, or what they call 'HBCUs,' Myers said she's comfortable enough in her skin to venture off to Scripps College, a tiny liberal arts college in the predominantly white suburb of Claremont, Calif.

The Gates scholars program, established in 1999, initially was funded by a $1 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle.

It's now administered by the United Negro College Fund, which partners with the American Indian Graduate Center Scholars, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund. About 1,000 scholars are selected each year.

Merit scholar bound for UPS

While Myers says that while she's 'never been given an option to fail,' she'll be the first on her mom's side of the family to attend college and the second on her dad's side.

That's an entirely different scenario from some other college-bound seniors who are raised with higher education in their family's culture.

That's the case for Kali O'Dell, one of 18 valedictorians at Wilson High School, who is the only Portland Public Schools recipient so far of the National Merit Scholarship, an award bestowed upon seniors who get high scores on the PSAT and meet other stringent requirements.

In addition to detailing their participation in leadership and community activities, National Merit Scholars must 'have an outstanding academic record throughout high school, be endorsed and recommended by the school principal, and earn SAT scores that confirm the student's earlier qualifying test performance.'

O'Dell, who scored a 2,150 out of 2,400 on her SAT, won one of the corporate-sponsored scholarships of $12,000 per year for four years, which will come from Xerox, where her dad works.

She'll use the award to attend the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., where she hopes to study environmental science or environmental policy.

O'Dell chalks up her drive and success in school to her genes. Both her parents have advanced degrees, and her older sister attends Lewis and Clark College.

'I can't stand not being the best at something I'm good at,' she said. 'School's my thing. I'm good at getting stuff done. I'm really good at tests. That makes it easy.'

O'Dell has kept a 4.0 GPA while taking advanced chemistry and three AP classes this year: English, environmental science and history.

In addition to O'Dell, five other PPS students have been named as National Merit Scholars so far - one at the Metropolitan Learning Center, two at Lincoln and two at Wilson, which will see three-quarters of its graduates head off to college in the fall. Their names will be officially announced on Wednesday.

Others will hear later this summer if they've won a different level of merit award that's sponsored by individual colleges.

The potential is there

Myers, the Grant senior, has such big plans for her future, she can hardly wait to begin. Since her Gates award allows her to pursue her studies without worrying about loans or work-study, she plans to take as many electives as possible, focusing on anthropology and international relations.

One of her big loves is language - she hopes to become fluent in eight of them.

She can see herself as a United Nations ambassador someday, or perhaps opening her own internationally based school.

As a school board member, she gets to address students at one of the district's high schools.

She's been assigned to speak at Marshall Night School, and while she hasn't written her speech yet, she knows what she'll say.

'It'll be about overcoming what limits people place on you,' she said. 'People might think that being at a night school they aren't going to be successful, but they have the potential to do anything.'

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