Four CWRU students selected as Gates Millennium scholars

A pair of first-year students, a PhD candidate and an online master’s student at Case Western Reserve University were selected as Gates Millennium scholars.

Each said they could not have attended the schools they wanted most without the Gates scholarships.

The Gates Millennium program selects 1,000 African-American, American-Indian/Alaska Native, Asian Pacific Islander-American or Hispanic-American students each year to receive a good-through-graduation scholarship at any college or university of their choice.

The program, funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has awarded nearly $1 million to Case Western Reserve students since the program’s inception in 1999 and, overall, nearly $800 million in scholarships to 17,000 students nationally. The scholars here are:

Unique Luna

Luna is a fifth-year PhD student in macromolecular science and engineering. The Gates scholarship covered the cost of earning her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan and is paying for graduate school.

Despite taking advanced placement classes at her Washington, D.C., high school and spending a summer doing research at Louisiana State University, Luna was hesitant to apply for the scholarship.

“I waited until the last minute to submit the application,” Luna said. “I didn’t think I’d receive the scholarship. It was a nationwide competition, and I was misinformed; I was told I needed a great SAT score and I hadn’t gotten mine back yet. I was intimidated.”

Winning changed her. She now applies to anything she thinks might be a benefit. NASA offered cooperative learning opportunities, but she didn’t qualify for the specified positions. She applied anyway.

Now, part of her thesis research is done at NASA, modifying a computer program to simulate how colloids act differently in space. Turns out, NASA has a client interested in how colloids—which include such things as mayonnaise, hand creams and shampoos—work. One goal is to understand why the gel-like structures collapse over time, and to prevent the deterioration and increase shelf life.

Sylvester Amponash

Amponash, a first-year student leaning toward an electrical engineering major, was born in Ghana and moved to Columbus, where he attended Northland High School.

“My first year in high school, my brother’s friend won the scholarship and my brother told me about it,” Amponash said. “Immediately, I knew I wanted it. My whole high school was aimed toward winning this.”

But he nearly threw himself out of the running his freshman year. When his algebra teacher told the class they would all receive a zero on homework few had completed, Amponash, who had done the assignment, challenged her.

They argued and, as she drew near, he threatened to hit her. Though he never intended to hit her, the words came out. He was suspended for 25 days and, during that time, thought hard about his future. He returned to school, went to her classroom and apologized for his rudeness.

She accepted and “she became like a mother and personal mentor,” Amponash said. In the end, she wanted to recommend him for the scholarship.

Amponash became a finalist but ended up waiting two years to receive the scholarship, due to delays in approval for his application for legal residency. Unable to work—he lacked a Social Security card—he spent two years reading and discussing philosophy with one of his high school teachers, helped with the math and robotics teams he’d been on as a student, learned to apply to colleges and write essays and taught others how.

Ellen Essien

Essien is a first-year student studying biology and medical anthropology. Essien was born in Italy, moved to Gahanna, Ohio, and attended the Charles School, a charter school. She earned an associate’s degree in cross-disciplinary studies from Ohio Dominican University by the time she graduated high school.

While in high school, Essien served as vice president of the student chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, a senator in student government and as a peer tutor.

Essien was inspired to apply for the scholarship by a sister’s friend, who was a Gates Millennium scholar and has become Essien’s mentor. “It was kind of surreal when I got it,” she said. “I feel blessed to have the scholarship and to be at such a great institution.”

She plans, eventually, to attend medical school, which the scholarship does not cover. But, because the scholarship lasts her lifetime, Essien can use it to earn a master’s or PhD in STEM fields down the line—an idea she may revisit.

Essien is a member of the American Medical Students Association, the Case African Students Association and the Mather Dance Collective, called MaDaCol; she also is a Civic Engagement Scholar and a volunteer at University Hospitals Case Medical Center. She also participated in Undergraduate Indian Student Association’s Andaaz cultural show as a captain/choreographer for the first-year dance.

Michael Xavier Gonzales

Gonzales, who lives in Austin, Texas, is earning a master’s of science in medical physiology online, while he works full time. Gonzales earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from Reed College in 2012.

“I come from a family of modest means,” he said. “As such, I knew that I would have to be proactive in searching for a means of paying for a college education. I searched for, and applied to, any scholarship for which I was eligible.”

Gonzales had been promoted to supervisor at a medical scribe and electronic record implementation company when he sought a graduate program. He was traveling regularly to the Pacific Northwest to help 15 hospitals transition to using a new electronics medical records system. He chose Case Western Reserve specifically because it offered medical physiology online.

“It really allows you to take the most out of your education when you are able to learn textbook cardiac physiology, then, the very next day, see the clinical manifestations of those physiological processes in the hospital or clinic,” he said.

He encourages any student to work toward and apply for the Gates Millennium scholarship.

“It allows you to choose your undergraduate institution based on your interests as a student, rather than based on limited financial means,“ Gonzales said. “It provides us the means to decide our own future, whatever that may be.”

For more information on the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, visit