HAYWARD -- Two local students have set their sights high, and winning Gates Millennium scholarships will help them attain their dreams, paying for all their expenses throughout their college years.
Jennifer Tran and Alex Tunchez, seniors at Leadership Public Schools, Hayward, both plan to major in aerospace engineering in college, saying it combines their interests in math and science.
"I feel like I'm limited when I'm on the ground, and I want to explore the sky," Tunchez said.
"And airplanes are so amazingly beautiful," Tran said.
Tran will attend UC Davis, and Tunchez is headed to UC San Diego. They are among 1,000 students nationwide to be awarded Gates Millennium scholarships, which cover tuition, room and board, books and supplies, food and spending money for both undergraduate and postgraduate education.
Both Tran and Tunchez will be the first in their families to attend college. Tran, 18, said her mother is her motivation to seek a college education. She has watched her mother, who immigrated from Vietnam, work hard while raising three children.
"I want to be able to give back to my mom," Tran said. "My mom had three kids by the time she was 22. She was never able to go back and get her education."
Tunchez, whose parents immigrated from Guatemala, credits Leadership Public Schools' focus on college for his success.
"My family just expected me to graduate from high school," said the 17-year-old, adding that his family has been very supportive of his continuing education.
In addition to being senior class president, Tran also teaches Buddhism and Vietnamese at her local temple. And she co-founded a hip-hop club at the school. "I loved performing and dancing," she said. "When I was younger, my mom had enrolled me in a few hip-hop classes at the community center, and since then I just really enjoyed doing it to release stress."
As far as her biggest accomplishment as senior class president, Tran said, "We made prom cheap." Tickets for the dance, scheduled for May 25, are $70 for one or $120 for two.
When Tunchez isn't studying, he likes to be on the baseball diamond. He has played on several teams as a first baseman, third baseman and pitcher. He also enjoys cycling.
"Exercising relaxes me and helps with the stress," he said.
The prestigious Gates scholarship is awarded based on need and merit, said Claudia Aguilar, a counselor at Leadership. This year, 54,000 students nationwide applied for the scholarships, which are geared toward minority students.
"Students need to have high financial need and be superstars both in academic and service and leadership," Aguilar said.
Tran credits Leadership and its instructors with helping her pursue her academic goals, calling the school a second home. "I feel safe here," she said.
Leadership, established in 2005, has 460 students and a waiting list of more than 200, said Assistant Principal Omar Wandera. This year, 79 percent of the senior class at the charter school plan to attend a four-year college. And 100 percent of the seniors say they will attend either a two-year or four-year college or go into the military, he said.
"What drives us is what happens after graduation, after they leave here," Wandera said.
The Gates Millennium Scholars Program, established in 1999, is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
"Before, I didn't know how I was going to pay for college," Tunchez said. "The scholarship allows me to go to graduate school and explore the world. I want to get out of here. I've lived in bad neighborhoods, and I need to go somewhere where I can enrich my life."
Contact Rebecca Parr at 510-293-2473 or follow her at Twitter.com/rdparr1.