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Gainesville High senior graduates this weekend with tuition paid, courtesy of the Gates Foundation
Gainesville High School senior Veronica Leon, right, 18, selects art for a book with classmates from left: Tran Dang, 17, Briseida Barillas, 18, a senior, and Uriel Dominguez, 17, a junior, April 29. Leon was recently named a millennium scholar by the Gates Foundation. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

If you’re a student planning on going to college, your writing skills had better be top notch.

That’s because along with churning out essays for college applications, students need to apply for scholarships, too. And that means even more essays.

Take it from Gainesville High School senior Veronica Leon, who spent October through December of last year writing essay after essay for 10 college applications plus as many scholarships as she could find that she felt she had a chance to win. And her hard work paid off: She’s recently been named a Gates Foundation Millennium Scholar, which means her entire college education is paid for, even down to the books, room and board and any extras.

"It was one of those far-fetched ones that I didn’t think I was going to get at all," she said of applying for the Gates scholarship. Leon was one of 1,000 students chosen for the award; more than 25,000 applied for the scholarship.

"I found out through my advisor (Mandy Wade), and she told me I needed to apply even though I didn’t think I was going to get it. But she kept believing in me and so that’s how I ended up applying for it."

Along with the scholarship, Leon was accepted into eight colleges and wait-listed at two more. Her choices includes University of Georgia, University of Virginia, Sarah Lawrence College and Wofford College.

Her final decision? Agnes Scott College in Decatur.

It’s the biggest decision she’s made so far, but it’s also one in a long string of decisions Leon said she’s been making on her own since she came to this country when she was 5. Her second-grade teacher, Pam Griffin, took it upon herself to make sure Leon knew how to read. Not only did Leon achieve that goal, she said, she surpassed it, winning her school’s top reader award for the following three years.

"I had the determination to be the best person I could be and make my family proud," she said. "I think that has kept me going and made me go above and beyond what they expect."

Another inspiration in her life has been her godmother, Renee Morris, who teaches at Gainesville Middle School. Leon said Morris once told her, "We are all placed in positions to help and inspire others. Your time is here. Make me proud."

"And that is exactly what I have strived to do throughout high school and in life," added Leon. "To make her and everyone who has helped shape and guide me, proud."

Wade, Leon’s advisor and the ESOL department chairwoman at Gainesville High School, is another role model who has helped encourage and support Leon throughout her high school years.

When Leon had a question about an essay she was writing, Wade said, she was there to read it over at 3 a.m. and has become an expert at tapping out revision suggestions on her iPhone.

The whole application process for the Gates scholarship, along with the myriad other awards Leon applied for, was an eye-opening experience, said Wade, who also wrote about a half-dozen essays to recommend Leon for the scholarship.

"There are so many kids who graduate and think college is going to magically pop up after high school," Wade said. "It’s not that way. And for first-generation college attenders, they don’t know the process, don’t know the way."

But luckily for Leon, her adult mentors and her internal drive pushed her to excel at whatever she tried. She’s logged more than 600 volunteer hours at Northeast Georgia Medical Center and New Horizons nursing home. Along with her good grades, she also works on the school paper and is in the process of publishing a book with a few other students that is a collection of writings from students in all grades at the high school.

She plans to study to be an immigration lawyer, she said, so she can continue to help others. It’s the least she can do, she said, after receiving so much help making her own choices along the road she’s already traveled.

"I think my biggest thing is, I didn’t think I could get this (scholarship," she said. "But I had people like Ms. Wade who supported me and believed in me and kept me going. I think the best thing you can do for yourself is believe in yourself."

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