In the United States, many students from minority backgrounds are underrepresented among college graduates with bachelor’s degrees.
Despite increased racial and ethnic diversity on college campuses across the nation, the gap between students of color and white students is wide when looking at graduation rates at four-year institutions. The U.S. Department of Education reported that in 2012, six percent of those graduating with a bachelor's degree were Latina/o, nine percent were black, seven percent were Asian or Pacific Islanders, and 0.7 percent were American Indian or Alaska Natives.
The Gates Millennium Scholarship, part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is an excellent program that helps to close this gap by offering an extremely generous scholarship program, mentorship, and other resources to low-income, high-performing minority students.
The Gates Millennium Scholarship: An Overview
The Gates Millennium Scholarship (GMS) provides funding to recipients for up to ten years of study, covering a bachelor's degree in any discipline and graduate degrees in any of seven funding areas: computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health, or science.
For bachelor's programs, the GMS covers the entire cost of attendance except the expected family contribution, as decided by a school’s financial aid office and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). For graduate degrees, funding is capped at $37,379 per year for private institutions and $28,473 per year for public institutions.
The scholarship is administered through the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) in partnership with the American Indian Graduate Center Scholars (AIGCS), the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF), and the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF).
GMS also offers scholars leadership development programs, a mentorship program, and Academic Empowerment (ACE) services. The mentorship program gives alumni and graduate students the opportunity to mentor younger scholars. A mentor typically lives in the same city or has attended the same college as the current GMS student. ACE services help students navigate the different challenges they may face on campus, from giving academic support to students whose grades have fallen below a 3.0 GPA to helping students pay for graduate examination fees.
My Experience with GMS
My hands shook when I opened the envelope from GMS, and when I read the word “Congratulations” in script across a certificate with my name on it, I wept with joy. Not long after my first semester of college began, the GMS program sent the members of my cohort to a leadership conference outside of Washington D.C. They paid for the entire trip, and at the conference we heard inspirational speakers and learned more about our scholarships. It was amazing to be in a group of students of color who, like me, never thought they would be able to afford to go to college but were given a life-changing opportunity to pursue higher education.
The atmosphere was buzzing with excitement, but also with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. There is one speaker who I never forgot, who told us how amazing it would be for us to go on to earn a Ph.D. We would be able to increase our likelihood of employment, gain the respect of our communities, and represent diverse and often unheard voices in the world of academia. I decided then, as a freshman in college, that I was going to get a graduate degree, and now I am working towards just that.
GMS is more than funding for school. One unexpected benefit of being a recipient was that I was able to tailor my study experience to my needs. For example, I transferred to a distance learning program while pursuing my bachelor's degree so that I could live in Australia with my husband. I also was able to take deferments, postponing my scholarship and studies during each of my pregnancies. This flexibility allowed me to broaden the scope of my undergraduate experience by studying while living overseas, and also allowed me to start a family while pursuing my education. I didn't expect to receive such extensive help, and I am grateful.
Eligibility for the GMS Program
Students who are U.S. citizens or national or legal permanent residents are eligible to apply if they are African-Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islander Americans, or Latina/o-American. Applicants must also have a high school GPA of 3.3 or higher (on an unweighted 4.0 scale) or have earned a GED. They must also be enrolling as a full-time, degree-seeking student for the first time at an accredited college or university in the U.S.
Eligible students also must meet the Federal Pell Grant eligibility criteria and submit a completed application. Strong applicants will also show leadership skills through participation in community service work and other extracurricular activities.
The Application Process
The application opens in August and closes around mid-January. There are three forms in the application: the Nominator Form, the Recommender Form, and the Student Application, all of which can be accessed on the GMS website.
The nominator should be an educator familiar with the student's academic record, and the recommender should be someone familiar with the student's extracurricular, community service, and leadership activities. An educator can be both the nominator and recommender and would then need to fill out both forms. The applicant must identify the nominator and recommender on her own student application, but the nominator and recommender fill out their own respective forms online.
The student application asks questions about the student's academic record, employment history, leadership and community service activities, financial aid information, heritage, and personal information. It also requires that the student answer eight essay questions for students just graduating high school. For students who have graduated high school more than one year ago, there is an additional essay question. This application is intense, and successful applicants will take their time to to write coherent and compelling answers to the essay questions.
Advice for Students Applying
For students thinking of applying to this prestigious scholarship, here is some advice:
Prepare your nominator and recommender.
When I applied, I previewed the nominator and recommender forms, and wrote out a list of relevant qualities about myself and experiences I've had that my recommender and nominator could include on their forms. I also gave my recommender my transcripts and my nominator my résumé, so they could draw from that information as well.
Be thoughtful about your essays.
The essays seem like the bulk of the application when you are filling it out — they take a lot of thought and time to answer. I spent hours writing them and made sure each question was answered completely and that my responses were well-written. It’s also a good idea to seek out a teacher, writing tutor, guardian, or other adult to take a look at your essays.
I spent the most time on essay eight, which asks, “Is there anything else you would like to tell us about that may help us evaluate your nomination?” When answering this question, I focused on adversity I experienced in my life, how I overcame it, and how it shaped my life and goals. The essay showed that despite hardship, I was a high achiever in school, I was involved in my community, and, most importantly, I was inspired to make the world better so that others didn't have to endure what I did growing up.
Talk about how your background shapes your identity.
In my application, I discussed how I would work towards addressing specific issues that Native American youth (myself included) face. This showed I would be motivated and capable of making a real difference in my community. I wrote passionately and honestly, and I’m proud of what I submitted to the admissions committee.
Receiving this scholarship has changed the course of my life in tremendously positive ways. It has empowered me, through what I learned as a sociology major, to understand the many problems our society faces today. With my graduate degree in teaching, I hope to empower future generations, who must deal with these problems head-on in the coming years. I want them to be able to change the world for the better, too.
The Gates Millennium Scholarship Program was created to change the lives of students who may not have had the opportunity to attend college by providing financial, academic, and even emotional support to students throughout their educational journeys. The single most important event that affected my ability to reach my education and career goals was being awarded this scholarship. I owe my success to this program; I could not have afforded to attend college or graduate school without it! The application process is arduous, but the benefits of being a Gates Scholar are well worth it.
Want to learn more about different funding opportunities available to students? Visit the Noodle college scholarships page to find additional advice and honest answers from Nikki Morgan and other members of the Noodle Expert community.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). Digest of Education Statistics, 2013 (NCES 2015-011)