OAKLAND -- When Phuong-Dung Le's father died of colon cancer in 2008, he left her jobless mother and five brothers and sisters in poverty, kept afloat only with government aid.

Her mother, a native of Vietnam who doesn't speak English, has never been employed. The family lives in large part on Social Security, housing vouchers and food stamps.

Yet Le is going off to UCLA next fall with a full scholarship from the Gates Millennium Scholars program.

Le, who attends Life Academy High School in Oakland, is one of four high school students in Oakland and Berkeley who are among 1,000 nationwide receiving the scholarships made possible by a 1999 grant of $1.6 billion from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The scholarships pay for just about all of the costs of college, wherever the student is accepted and for up to five years, said Gates program spokeswoman Christina Poy.

"We're helping them meet their costs, so in the end they should be debt-free," Poy said.

The other three recipients in Oakland and Berkeley are Anaiya Olivares of Berkeley High School, Juan Gomez of Aspire Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy in Oakland and Nicholas Ross of Fremont High School, also in Oakland.

When Le, who has a 3.9 grade-point average, applied for the scholarship she had little doubt she would succeed.

"I've worked hard all throughout my life," Le said. "And I thought if I worked hard on this application, I would get something in return for all the effort I've put into high school."

She had to write eight essays. Her favorite was how she came from a poor background but decided early on that she could still make a difference in her community by raising money for an after-school program at her high school, which "offers a safe place for kids and helps them academically."

She said she picked UCLA because "it's far from home, and it's a new environment in a big city where I can be by myself."

The scholarships are aimed at low-income students who are African-American, American Indian, Asian Pacific Islander American and Hispanic American students who have a 3.3 grade-point average or better.

Le doesn't know how much her scholarship will be worth over five years, and right now she doesn't really care.

"I just know it's a full ride, so that's nice," she said.

Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.