GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Gates Scholar Tom Billins attributes his award to his participation in the Law Enforcement Explorers. Gates Millennium Scholarships help remove financial barriers to college for deserving ethnic-minority students.
9 isle scholars win big
Full tuition comes courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Orphaned as a baby, Tom Billins grew up bouncing around California in a Volkswagen van until he was 7, learning lessons on the street rather than the classroom.
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To learn more about the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, visit www.gmsp.org. Students may apply online starting Aug. 1 for the 2007-2008 academic year. The deadline is Jan. 12.
This fall, the 19-year-old Maryknoll School graduate is headed to Santa Clara University with the cost of his tuition, room and board covered as one of nine Gates Millennium Scholars selected from Hawaii.
"I cry every time I think about how lucky he was to be selected," said his grandmother Kathy Iona, who heard about the Gates scholarship a few years ago while listening to a Hawaiian radio station and urged Tom to pursue it. She and Tom's grandfather Allen Vidal rescued him from homelessness when he was 7, bringing him to Hawaii.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation established the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program in 1999 to help remove financial barriers to college for deserving ethnic-minority students across the country. The scholarships cover the costs of undergraduate education for 1,000 entering freshmen each year at the school of their choice, and can also extend through graduate school.
Along with Billins, other Gates scholars from Hawaii this year are Cherilyn Visarra and Leonard Ridela of Campbell High School, Lilah Akin of Waialua High School, Brandi De Mello of Hana High School, Anh Tran of Punahou School, Bao-Yen Nguyen of Farrington High School, Thien Kim Tran of La Pietra-Hawaii School for Girls and Paul Fai of Waipahu High School.
Gates Scholars are academically talented low-income students who show leadership and community service. Candidates must be U.S. citizens of African, American Indian, Alaska native, Asian-Pacific islander or Hispanic origin. Billins is of Filipino and Mexican descent.
His mother, a single teen, died in a car accident before he was 2, and he was taken in by relatives in California who fell into alcohol and drug abuse, Iona said. Eventually his grandfather in Hawaii was contacted, revealing Tom's location.
Billins entered Saint Joseph School in Waipahu at age 8, not knowing how to read.
"As a child we were jumping around from place to place in California," he said. "I never really got any schooling. Oftentimes we would have to beg for food."
When he finally got a chance to settle down and go to school, Billins took full advantage of it. He would get to Saint Joseph's early every day to eat breakfast and play with his new friends, be the first in line to go into the classroom, and stay after school for tutoring to catch up.
Vidal took on extra jobs to put Tom through Saint Joseph and Maryknoll. At Santa Clara University, tuition alone tops $45,000, which would be impossible without the Gates scholarship.
About 4.4 million American high school graduates cannot attend four-year colleges because they cannot afford it, according to "Empty Promises: The Myth of College Access in America," a report by the federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance.
Iona urges Hawaii students to prepare early, as freshmen, to apply for the Gates scholarship, so they will have the required community service and leadership experience as well as the academics.
Billins, who hopes to pursue a career in law or law enforcement, believes his activities out of school helped him win the scholarship. He joined the Oahu Taekwondo Center and earned gold medals twice at the national Junior Olympic competitions. A member of the Honolulu Police Department's Law Enforcement Explorers Program since age 14, he has volunteered hundreds of hours to community groups, and led the Honolulu team to this month's national Explorers conference in Arizona.
"He's just a great kid," said former Police Chief Lee Donohue, who wrote a letter of recommendation praising Billins for his citizenship, integrity and social skills. "He's really come a long way. Talk about a good ending."