The Northern Mariana Islands is an American commonwealth, but its distant location in the western Pacific Ocean (nearly 6,000 miles, for example, from Los Angeles) is a big reason why few students there have the wherewithal to come to the U.S. to attend college. Saipan, the largest of the Marianas, has just one community college, and many residents feel they have little choice but to enter the workforce directly out of high school.
Epa Cabrera ’20, a double-major in business and economics at Hollins, was born and raised on Saipan and one of her high school teachers, Gerard Van Gils, was determined to change that mindset. As a result of going to college in Utah, Van Gils had experienced first-hand the advantages of higher education in the States. So, Cabrera recalls, “he brought together those of us who were among the 25 students with the highest GPAs at our school to take a college prep course. He showed us what it was like to attend college on the mainland and exposed us to all these scholarships.”
Because of the class, Cabrera discovered one of the nation’s largest and most ambitious scholarship initiatives. Funded with $1.6 billion from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) program was established in 1999 to support African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian Pacific Islander American, and Hispanic American students with high academic and leadership potential who also have financial need. Selecting 1,000 Scholars a year since its inception, the GMS program today funds over 20,000 students, more than half of whom are first-generation.
The GMS application process was rigorous. “In addition to five letters of recommendation, they required all applicants to write eight essays, each of which had to be at least 1,000 words in length,” Cabrera explains. “The essays took three months to finish.” Fortunately, she had great resources to draw upon, including another teacher who served as her mentor as well as her own compelling personal experiences. “I wrote about growing up and working on my family’s farm and how we sold vegetables every Saturday morning,” she says. “I also talked about the impact of the huge typhoon that struck Saipan in 2015 (Typhoon Soudelor, which caused extensive damage to the island and was one of Earth’s most powerful storms that year).”
Cabrera’s hard work paid off and she was one of six students from her school who were named Gates Millennium Scholars in 2016. “This was big news for Saipan,” she says, “only one other person from here had previously earned this honor.”
Throughout her college career at Hollins, Cabrera’s GMS scholarship has picked up financially where her Hollins grants and scholarships left off. In addition, the award has made real-world experiences outside the classroom possible, including participation in the Jamaica Cultural Immersion Program during spring break in 2018, and an opportunity to study abroad at Università degli Studi di Roma Tre in Rome, Italy, the following fall. It has even provided funds for her to fly home during her summer breaks. During this, her senior year, the GMS program will enable Cabrera to work as a research assistant during the 2020 Short Term at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and take part once again in the Jamaica Cultural Immersion Program over spring break.
GMS also offers funding for up to 10 years for Scholars who wish to pursue a graduate degree in computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health, or science. Cabrera plans to use this benefit to complete a Master’s degree and possibly a Ph.D. in public health in preparation for a career in global health economics.
“I am grateful that because of this program, I will be able to graduate from Hollins next spring debt-free and then continue my education without an economic burden,” she says.