Two seniors from the Chester Upland School District are going to college for free, thanks to a highly competitive scholarship that covers all costs through graduation.
For the fourth year in a row, students from Chester Upland have won a Gates Millennium scholarship awarded to 1,000 students nationwide.
Autumn Bey and Edward Nelson Jr., both seniors at STEM Academy at Showalter, were selected from 50,000 applicants.
The scholarships from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation cover tuition, books, room and board through graduate school at any accredited college or university. The program was established in 1999 to eliminate financial barriers to higher education for high-achieving minority students from low-income communities.
Chester Upland administrators created an extracurricular program four years ago to identify and mentor talented students who may not have considered college due to family circumstances. Students make a two-year commitment to the program that helps guide them through the arduous scholarship application process.
At a ceremony to introduce the scholarship winners, Jean Arnold, community volunteer and application coach, said students had to write eight essays for the Gates Millennium application.
“By the time they write them and edit them, I think they might write about 48 essays altogether,” she said. “So we want you to know it’s a rigorous process. They’ve done a wonderful job … they’re not just scholars and athletes, but they’re wonderful people. And I am so proud to know them.”
Edward Nelson Jr. sacrificed his winter break, weekends and part of his summer to work on the scholarship application.
“I knew that I had to win this scholarship. I knew that I was going to win this scholarship. I was confident because I represent hope, because I’m just an everyday guy like y’all,” he said. “I hope that I spark the mind of somebody else that, if I can do it, they can do it.”
The Chester native — when he’s not in advanced placement physics, calculus, history or literature classes — serves as the senior class president and captain of the football team.
LaDontay Bell, Chester High School football coach and climate manager for Toby Farms Elementary School, spoke about knowing Nelson since elementary school.
“Starting out at Toby, this young man is just remarkable. He’s scholarly, athletic, very humble.”
Nelson, who wants to be a school superintendent, will major in education at Bloomsburg University where he will also play football.
Bey has been recognized for distinguished honors every single marking period in her four years of high school. She is top of her class with a perfect 4.0 GPA.
Her father, Sam “Walaam” Dickerson-Bey, said she would fall asleep doing homework.
“I would go in her room at night and take the pencil out of her hand and cover her up and take the papers. ‘Go ahead to sleep, babe,'” he said.
Outside the classroom, Bey is captain of the volleyball team and serves on the school’s Youth Court, a peer discipline panel.
The 18-year-old is headed to Xavier University of Louisiana as a pre-med and neuropsychology major. She hopes to pursue a career in medical research for cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The Chester Township native said that when she was finally able to hit the submit button on the application, it brought a sense of relief and hope.
“That sense of hope and hard work has brought me a long way,” Bey said. “This opportunity means a whole new beginning for me, a whole new mindset on life, a whole new confidence, and a whole new set of aspirations.”
Chester Upland School District now has six Gates Millennium Scholars awarded in the past four years. Past recipients include siblings Kameron and Kamri Staples, who attend Brown and Cornell, respectively, as well as Justin Platt and Shamyra Woods-Elliott who both attend Xavier University of Louisiana.
The unprecedented achievement is a source of pride for Chester Upland which has been identified by the Pennsylvania Department of Education as the state’s worst-performing district both academically and financially and has been under state control for more than 20 years.
Pennsylvania had 15 Gates Millennium Scholars selected last year, and this year’s full list of recipients will be announced May 1.