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Kennedy High School senior Kelssie Sontay Perez is photographed at the school in Richmond, Calif. on Monday, April 29, 2013. Kelssie recently was awarded a college scholarship from the Gates Millennium Scholars program that she will use to attend UC Santa Cruz in the fall. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

RICHMOND -- Kennedy High School senior Kelssie Sontay Perez has been rewarded for her academic performance and school and community service with a college scholarship funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Perez said she will attend UC Santa Cruz in the fall, with hopes of becoming a doctor and perhaps returning to Richmond to practice.

"I love this community," she said. "I really care about it."

The Gates Millennium Scholars program awards 1,000 scholarships each year, averaging about $12,000 annually, although some students get all their costs paid for while in college based on need. The Fairfax, Va.-based program began in 1999 with a $1 billion grant from the Gates Foundation that continues to be its sole funding source, according to Mary Williams, the Millennium program's director of outreach and recruitment.

The program is aimed at African-American, American Indian, Asian Pacific Islander American and Hispanic-American students.

"Some students get everything paid for," Williams said. "It's really a life-changing scholarship."

Perez said the scholarship will pay all her college costs. She said she heard about the scholars program about a week before the application deadline in January from Kennedy graduate Claudia Campos, a friend who is a freshman at UC Berkeley.

She said it was a challenge to fit in her homework around filling out the application materials and enlisting teachers for recommendations in a rush to meet the deadline.

"I thought the deadline had already passed, but Claudia told me that the deadline was in a week," Perez said. "I spent time on it every day and had to do my homework as well."


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Perez said she picked UC Santa Cruz because "I fell in love with (pictures of) the campus and then did a lot of research on it."

English teacher Ian Bader said Kennedy had a pair of Gates scholarship winners two years ago but none last year.

Perez was in Bader's freshman English class three years ago and is now in his advanced placement English class.

"It's a big scholarship, and we wrote letters on her behalf," Bader said. "There were a lot of questions about the student's leadership and commitment to the community."

Perez said her interest in medicine came from accompanying her mother on visits to the doctor to care for her diabetes.

"I thought it was interesting watching them do tests to keep track of her blood sugar and glucose," Perez said.

Perez has two younger brothers who attend middle school and elementary school in Richmond, respectively. Her father works in construction, and her mother is a stay-at-home mom. The family has lived in Richmond for 16 years after moving from San Rafael.

This year, more than 17,000 students applied for the scholarships, Williams said.

Applicants must have a minimum of a 3.3 grade-point average and be involved in community service and leadership activities, she said.

Perez's community service has included working on get-out-the-vote phone banks during elections and tutoring and helping other students with their college applications at school.

"The students come with a community service focus," Williams said. "They are really excited to reach out to other students to help them become scholars as well."

Other Gates scholarship winners from the Bay Area include Jason Low of Richmond, who attends The Branson School in Ross; Anaiya Olivares of Berkeley High School; Jennifer Tran and Alex Trunchez of Leadership Public Schools in Hayward; Juan Gomez of Aspire Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy in Oakland; Nicholas Ross of Fremont High School in Oakland; and Phuong-Dung Le of Life Academy High School in Oakland.