Aisha Baloo values education and culture as the two pillars of her life. It is a philosophy that will serve her well as a 2011 Gates Millennium Scholar.
Baloo, a senior at Montezuma-Cortez High School, is one of only 1,000 students in the nation to receive the prestigious award, which includes full funding for undergraduate and graduate studies at any college.
The Gates Millennium Scholarship was established in 1999 with a $1 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal of the scholarship is to promote academic excellence and to provide an opportunity for outstanding minority students with significant financial need to reach their highest potential, according to the scholarship website.
Baloo began the rigorous application process early this year.
It is a long application, she said. You have to have a nominator to cite your academic records and a recommender to cite your community service and what youve done for the community. There are eight essay questions.
Among the essay questions required for the application were questions regarding short- and long-term goals, leadership experience, and how the applicant has overcome a challenge.
One questions asked applicants to explain sources outside of school which have provided knowledge. For Baloo, the question allowed her to explain her close tie with her Navajo roots.
I am very traditional, she said. I keep close to the Navajo culture. I am very active in the Native American church and try to use my culture in a positive direction. I try to balance my life between what I learn from school and what I learn from my culture.
Baloo believes that though standard education provides her with skills and knowledge, it is her culture which guides her steps.
I really think my culture gives me a clear view on life, she said. I see the path where Im going, and it has taught me to endure. My culture has strengthened my will to do well in academics.
Baloos will led her to apply for the Gates scholarship.
During my freshman year I heard about the scholarship, and ever since I heard Ive wanted to apply, she said. I was in shock when I found out I actually got it. And when I realized only 4 percent of those that applied were accepted I realized how cool this is.
As a Gates Millennium Scholar, Baloo will have far more opportunities than simply the financial benefits of the scholarship. The Gates program provides mentoring programs for scholars as well internship and career benefits.
It is really a gateway, Baloo said. It has opened doors for my education to allow me to do what I want and not have to worry about debt. There are also mentoring opportunities and workshops to smooth the transition to college. There are connections here you cant buy.
Baloo is not the first M-CHS grad to receive the Gates distinction. Shayna Begay, a 2005 graduate, was a recipient. Begay is a graduate student at Florida Institute of Technology, where she studies aerospace engineering with a focus on structural mechanics.
With the doors of her future thrown wide open, Baloo has big plans. This fall she will attend the University of New Mexico, where she intends to major in pharmaceutical studies. She said she hopes to pursue graduate work at a prestigious graduate school, like Stanford.
Despite the recognition that comes with being named a Gates Millennium Scholar, Baloo said she will always be known who she is because of her culture.
My culture is my identity, she said. That is what grounds me. That is what drives me forward.
Reach Kimberly Benedict at firstname.lastname@example.org.