By Curt Yeomans
Lacey Andrews didn't think she'd surpass 13,000 other applicants nationwide and become one of the 1,000 students picked to receive the Gates Millennium Scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
She also worried that the accreditation crisis in the Clayton County School System might doom her chances.
Andrews, 18, a senior at Mt. Zion High School, has a 4.1 grade point average and is taking only Advanced Placement courses this semester. She plays the viola in the school's orchestra, and she is a member of the volleyball, basketball, and track teams. She volunteers at a local senior citizens home and at local homeless shelters.
Despite her social-service credentials, she was sure the foundation would look at the recent decision by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) to revoke the district's accreditation, and somehow deem her as less deserving than other candidates.
"Given how many other students were applying for this scholarship, and how competitive it is to earn it, I thought they'd look at my application, see I was from Clayton County and say 'Naaaah,'" Andrews said.
With that in mind, Andrews got a pleasant surprise recently, when she was selected.
She read the acceptance letter and knew her college education was taken care of - as long as she continued to be an outstanding scholar.
"When I found out, I was shaking inside, because I wasn't expecting it," Andrews said. "Now, I'm nervous because I have to pick where I'm going to go to college, and money is no longer an obstacle."
She has already been accepted to Emory University's Oxford College, as well as Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., and the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.
"Everywhere she's applied, she's got in," said Lorrett Hibbert-Smith, Andrews' counselor at Mt. Zion High School.
The Gates Millennium Scholarship program was established in 1999, with a $1 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The purpose of the scholarship is to reduce monetary barriers, which may prevent African-American, Hispanic American, American Indian and Asian Pacific Islander students from attending college, according to the scholarship program's web site.
The program is designed to help a student obtain a bachelor's degree, and then master's and doctoral degrees, if the pupil chooses to continue his or her education.
Other goals of the program are to increase the numbers of students from those ethnic groups who go into the fields of education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health and various forms of science; and develop a diverse group of leaders for America's future.
There have been more than 10,000 Gates Scholars since 1999, according to the program's web site. The program has also seen 3,912 of these scholars graduate from college over the last nine years.
"I'm proud of her, but she's a very good student and I always knew good things were in her future," said Pernita Andrews, Lacey Andrews' mother.
The proud parent chalked up her daughter's success to hard work, especially in light of all her extracurricular activities. The newly minted Gates Scholar said she has her mother to thank for her time-management skills.
"It all starts with my mom always keeping me on a schedule," Lacey Andrews said. "By the time I was in middle school, I had already learned how to manage my time effectively."
Hibbert-Smith said Andrews was a once-in-a-lifetime student, who has good morals and ethical values. The counselor added that the school has received the scholarship application forms every year since the program began, but she's never seen a student as deserving as Andrews.
"With Lacey, for the first time, I felt, 'If this child doesn't get this, then there is something really messed up with this world,'" she said. "Because of the obstacles she's faced and her determination to learn ... to me, she is the epitome of what the Gates Millennium Scholarship program is about," she added, referring to Andrews' hearing impairment.
Mt. Zion Principal Gary Townsend said the entire school is proud of Andrews for receiving the scholarship, and the entire student body stood up and applauded her during a recent recognition assembly.
"I can't think of a more deserving young lady," Townsend said. "She's an athlete, a scholar, a member of the orchestra, and she has the highest GPA at Mt. Zion High School. She is going to leave some hard shoes to fill. I think any lady who wants to be a credit to her school should follow in Lacey's footsteps."
When asked what advice she would give any student seeking to follow in her footsteps, Andrews said "don't let your financial status hold you back. Hard work and perseverance pay off."