OAKLAND -- Grace Dickerson is a genuine overachiever.

The recent Oakland Technical High School graduate got top grades, was a youth soccer captain, a varsity cheerleader, had an internsnip at the Alameda County District Attorney's Office and was a member of the debate team. Given all that, it's not surprising that the University of Southern California admitted her as a sociology and pre-law student.

But she was left with the pressing question of how to pay for her tuition.

In June, the Operating Engineers Local 3 union helped Dickerson by awarding her a first-place $10,000 academic scholarship.

"She hit it out of the park," said Bonnie Dillion, a Local 3 representative speaking on behalf of Recording Secretary Jim Sullivan.

Local 3 awards six academic scholarships every year: first-, second- and third-place prizes that go to one male and one female applicant in each category. The union also awards 25 merit scholarships of $1,000 each, and an independent Chicano Latino Alumni Association panel from UC Berkeley chooses all the winners.

Dickerson beat out 71 other applicants for the first-place award, and was the only recipient from Oakland.

The scholarship is open to children of the union's members, and in addition to providing letters of recommendation and official transcripts, applicants wrote an essay about the importance of unions in their lives, and the world at large.

"(Unions) give average people a voice, which was the biggest part of my essay," Dickerson said. "Both of my parents are in unions, and it has helped with their salaries. That's has been important because we've struggled with money in my life."

Dickerson's mother, Kathy Linda Dees, works as an operating engineer for Local 3.

Both of her parents are proud of her, Dickerson said, but more important, they also told her she deserved every bit of the scholarship.

"Our family has been through a lot this year, so that felt really good," she said. "It's so important to have people believe in you."

As for future plans, her internship at the Alameda County District Attorney's Office has steered her away from a science track and inspired her to go into law, either as a public defender or a district attorney. Dickerson said she hopes to make a difference in people's lives.