Not only is billionaire Bill Gates sending Erika Carrera to the college of her choice, but President Barack Obama will bid her good luck in a White House ceremony this summer, placing the medallion of U.S. Presidential Scholar around her neck, as every president has done for an elite 141 graduating high school students since 1964.
A month ago, Carrera — about to graduate with a 4.75 weighted GPA and 3.95 unweighted GPA from the Veterans Tribute Career and Technical Academy — was struggling to find a way into college without amassing a mountain of debt. Accepted by Stanford University, Fordham University, the University of Notre Dame and more, she wanted to attend Arizona State University and study broadcast journalism.
Tuition: $25,000 for her freshman year.
“Two months into school, I’ll get a job. One month after that, I’ll get another job,” Carrera said of her plans.
Carrera is a first-generation college student, the daughter of immigrants who moved to Las Vegas from a small town in northern Mexico shortly before she was born. Her mother, Socorro Carrera, made it through ninth grade in Mexico, traveling two hours to the closest middle school in another town. School stopped at sixth grade for Erika’s father, Jose Luis Carrera, as that was the most available in his town.
“I don’t know how they made it,” Erika Carrera said.
Her parents came to the United States for the American Dream, although they didn’t know enough to name it that.
“A better future for our children,” her mother calls it.
Carrera, the oldest of two daughters, found that better future — and more — landing the Gates Millennium scholarship, which pays not only for college through undergraduate school but also advanced degrees, if students pursue computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health or science.
On top of that, Carrera is a U.S. Presidential Scholar, a recognition awarded by invitation only.
The senior has always been full of surprises, though. Her parents wanted to enroll her with English-learning students in kindergarten, only to find out she’d taught herself English at home.
“ ‘Sesame Street,’ ” Carrera said. “I learned English on ‘Sesame Street.’ ”
Her parents made education a priority, reading and writing with Carrera before she entered school. Why they did all this, Carrera realized from an early age. Her mother grew up loving to learn but could only go so far, she said.
“It’s heartbreaking when you want something, and it’s ripped away from you simply because it’s not available,” Carrera said.
Her mother recently earned her high school equivalency degree because she had promised to do so before Carrera graduated.
“It was to show my daughters that if I could do it, they could, too, and so much more,” Carrera’s mother said.
Carrera’s father also will be earning his high school equivalency degree soon and asserts that “education opens the door to so much.”
Carrera has racked her brain for why she’s been singled out. What made her stand out among all the high-achieving seniors, netting her not only the Gates Millennium — awarded annually to 1,000 high-achieving minority high school seniors — but also being named a Presidential Scholar, chosen out of a starting group of 3,000 U.S. students with the highest SAT or ACT scores?
“I honestly don’t know. I’ve tried to figure it out myself,” said Carrera, who never gave any of her scholarship essays to her English teachers for review. In fact, she was “fed up” with all the scholarship essays at one point. She didn’t write the nine essays for the Gates Millennium scholarship until the day before they were due.
With that came an unfiltered, honest voice, she thinks.
“I didn’t proofread. I did spell check, though. Probably not a good thing, but ...” said Carrera, shooting an apologetic glance to the school’s counseling coordinator Lynn Ann Lescenski.
“She’s a very strong writer,” said Lescenski, praising Carrera because the 18-year-old seldom brags, shown when Carrera described her extracurricular activities.
“I do student council,” Carrera said.
“She’s the student body president,” Lescenski clarified. “Erika didn’t tell you that she’s a Harvard Book Prize winner either, did she?”
The Harvard Prize Book is given to 1,900 high school juniors each year “who demonstrate excellence in scholarship and achievement in other nonacademic areas,” chosen by Harvard University’s Alumni Association.
Contact Trevon Milliard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter @TrevonMilliard.