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Scholars' hard work earns rewards

A trio of high school students in Paramount, near Downey, are recipients of Gates Millennium Scholarships.

June 12, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Suleika Zepeda is like most students at Paramount High School: She was raised in a working-class Spanish-speaking family. She struggled with English in elementary school. Her favorite bands include Mana and Los Tigres del Norte.

But unlike most seniors who graduated with her this year, Zepeda is getting big help with university expenses. Her tuition, books and housing will not cost the 17-year-old scholarship winner's parents a cent.

But Paramount High students and faculty aren't just proud of Suleika, who excels in advanced Spanish and English literature and will be attending UC Irvine.

They're also in awe of Marcos Nunez, 18, a self-described "math guy," who will enter UCLA; and Ramon Martinez, 17, a valedictorian with an interest in physics, who will be going to UC Berkeley.

All three were awarded the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship, which each year funds up to 10 years of education for 1,000 low-income, high-achieving minority students across the country.

The program aims to support students from the undergraduate through doctoral level in science, engineering, mathematics, education and library sciences. African Americans, Latinos and other minorities have long been underrepresented in those fields. Applicants must be U.S. citizens with at least a 3.3 grade-point average.

For the only high school in a city of 58,000 southeast of downtown Los Angeles, to produce three Gates scholars in one year is "a very big deal," said Charles Evans, a spokesman for the program, which was established with a $1-billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. "When you see a school get more than one, it's unusual and should be celebrated," Evans said.

Some would call that an understatement. The program received 11,000 25-page applications, which were winnowed down to 1,000 recipients, based on grades and income.

Of those, 178 scholarships went to high school students in California, including 21 in Los Angeles, eight in San Diego and two in Long Beach.

This all explains the good feeling these days at Paramount High, a campus of about 3,000 students. The school, where almost all of the students are eligible for free lunch programs, offers a variety of intervention programs and enjoys strong parental support.

But facing skyrocketing tuition costs, "my mom started crying when we learned I'd been awarded the scholarship," Ramon said. "We're not the richest family in the world. She'd been praying for something like this for a long time."

The students were urged to apply for the Gates scholarships late last year by their counselors. The good news was announced a few weeks ago on the campus public address system.

On June 26, their achievement will be honored by the Paramount Unified School District's Board of Education. Paramount Mayor Peggy Lemons said the students will be formally recognized by the City Council in September.

"I feel remarkably proud," said David Verdugo, superintendent of Paramount Unified. "There are many words that come to mind: perseverance, courage, confidence and success."

"We aim to use them as models," he added. "Their names will be prominent in my graduation speech before 6,000 people in stands on Thursday."

Michael Krager, who teaches Advanced Placement English literature and comprehension and has a large tattoo of William Shakespeare's face on his right arm, said Suleika, Nunez and Ramon are the kinds of students who "destroy preconceptions about high achievers."

"At first glance, you think, 'They're brilliant, and they must come from stable families with lots of money,' " Krager said. "In fact, their personal histories are nothing like that."

Suleika, for example, was born in the U.S. but spent most of her childhood in Mexico.

She was 9 years old and unable to speak a word of English when her family moved to Paramount. Her younger sister's autism has motivated Suleika to want to specialize in therapeutic sciences.

"Everyone has hardships," said Suleika, sitting on a lunch table at her school. "It all depends on how you deal with them."

Krager suggested another trait that sets the three apart. "None of these kids has that fierce Machiavellian drive to be the best, at any cost," he said. "They're not trying to impress anyone except, maybe, their moms and dads."

"Take Ramon," he said. "His intellectual gifts are simply paramount -- no pun intended."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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