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VIA THE WASHINGTON POST:

None of the students or parents were really sure why they were sitting in the Benjamin Banneker Academic High School auditorium Thursday morning.

Each principal, counselor or keeper-of-the-secret told a slightly different story: It’s an information session on scholarship opportunities. It’s a final meeting to go over details of their Gates Millennium Scholars application. It’s just a random news conference.

But then, after a long talk about the importance of going to college and a testimonial from a Howard University doctoral candidate who is a Gates Scholar, seven District students were announced as winners of the coveted scholarships, which cover the academic costs at any university, for any major, for as many years as it takes the student to graduate.

The first student called was Mary Amaechi, a Banneker senior who wants to be a doctor. As she stepped onto the stage for a photo, her mother could not contain her joy: “That’s my daughter! Oh my! That’s her!”

Philo Amaechi fumbled to get her camera to capture the unexpected moment.

Mary Amaechi, who has spent countless hours filling out applications in the school guidance center, has received other scholarships. But it still didn’t look as if she was going to be able to afford college, especially since she has her heart set on Georgetown University.

“It’s amazing. I am so relieved,” said Amaechi, 18. “I don’t have to go to the guidance center anymore. Now I can focus on studying for my [International Baccalaureate] exams in May.”

Each year, 1,000 low-income, minority students nationwide are awarded the scholarship, and letters of congratulations to all other recipients will be mailed Friday. The District is one of several cities that the United Negro College Fund, the program’s administrator, has targeted to increase the number of eligible students.

Last year, the District had one scholar; most years, it has four or five. This year, 57 students applied, 11 were finalists and seven were selected.

The scholarship program was established in 1999 and is funded with a $1.6 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal is to send 20,000 low-income, minority students to college over two decades. The scholarship covers any academic costs not covered by university financial aid or federal grants and can be extended to graduate school if students study education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health or the sciences.

The program also matches students with mentors, gives them leadership training and encourages them to perform community service.

“We hand you a ticket to a doctoral degree,” said Larry Griffith, a vice president of the United Negro College Fund. “The student has no loan burden, they don’t have to work. All they get to do is go to class and work on being a great student.”

The second recipient announced Thursday was Jose Gutierrez, a student at Saint Anselm’s Abbey School who plans to study mechanical engineering. Then, Elzabad Kennedy from McKinley Technology High School, who wants to study computer science. Winner Jasmina Rivas from the School Without Walls is interested in Latin American studies. Erwin Sweetwine from Banneker plans to study molecular and cellular biology. Jovalee Thompson, also from Banneker, is planning to study psychology.

The last name called was Isaiah West, a senior at Frank W. Ballou High School in Southeast. The former running back decided not to try out for the football team this year so he would have more time to study. He wants to be a surgeon and is debating whether to attend Emory or Duke. Taking money out of the equation will make his decision easier.

This is the first time a Ballou student has been awarded the scholarship in at least five years, school officials said.

“I’ve been planning for a long time to break boundaries and stand out,” West said. “It’s been hard, but everyone has challenges.”

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