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UT’s Gates Scholars Learning to See the Greatness in Themselves

Published: February 13, 2014
Ardisia Knowles ’15 joins Jan-Michael Archer ’14 and Ashley Stimage ’14 as Gates Millennium Scholars.
Ardisia Knowles ’15 joins Jan-Michael Archer ’14 and Ashley Stimage ’14 as Gates Millennium Scholars.

For most people, a conversation with Bill and Melinda Gates might center on innovations in technology or what American business leaders can do to help solve global problems.

For three students at UT, the conversation would begin with heartfelt thank yous, and for Ardisia Knowles ’15, there might not be words at all.

“I would probably cry, and then if I could, I would thank them so much,” said Knowles, a secondary English education major from Aurora, CO.

Knowles is a Gates Millennium Scholar, one of 16,000 scholars since the program’s inception in 1999 to receive a full scholarship through graduation with graduate school funded for those pursuing select majors, including computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health or science. The scholarship was initially funded by a $1 billion grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation “to promote academic excellence and to provide an opportunity for outstanding minority students with significant financial need to reach their highest potential,” according to the program website.

All three UT scholars had made plans for college, and assumed they would carry the burden of student loans. Knowles narrowed her search to local universities so she could cut living expenses by staying at home. When she found out she received the Gates scholarship, she started looking at more prestigious universities, and chose UT for its location, small class sizes and proximity to downtown Tampa.

The scholarship isn’t just a financial gift. There are ample leadership opportunities offered through conferences and alternative breaks. Because he was a Gates Scholar, biology major Jan-Michael Archer ’14 was able to attend the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Natural Resources Symposia held twice at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia and once in Albuquerque, NM. He said the program’s vast network of resources was a perk on top of connecting with the nation’s other scholars.

“I’ve met dozens of people from dozens of diverse backgrounds. It really speaks to the culture of unity within the organization,” said Archer, of Stone Mountain, GA. “On a very basic level, we are all ethnic minority individuals from low-income backgrounds, and that’s where we can all relate. When we see the greatness amongst us, like in the organization’s leaders, we are also seeing the greatness within ourselves.”

Ashley Stimage ’14 was known for her academic prowess at her Chicago high school, but it still was a shock when she received the big envelope in the mail with her acceptance letter from the program. She even made her little sister open it, because she said she couldn’t handle it if it were bad news. When her sister read the letter aloud, Stimage was shocked.

“I beat out 19,000 people — really? Me?” said Stimage, a communication major with minors in Asian studies and advertising. She was one of the 1,000 recipients of the Gates scholarship out of 20,000 applicants.

Stimage has two older siblings who didn’t go to college, so she’ll be the first in her immediate family to graduate with a college degree. She has three younger siblings though, two in college and one graduating high school this year with plans for higher education.

Archer hopes to continue his studies with graduate school. He is applying to the University of Florida’s Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Program where he plans to merge his communications and biological skills. He is grateful for the opportunity, and every Christmas, he sends the Gates a letter telling them so.

“I don’t know where I’d be without this scholarship,” Archer said. “If by some chance they Bing themselves — I don’t imagine they’d be Googlers but who knows — and find this article, here’s what I’d like them to see:

Mr. and Mrs. Gates,
The ways in which your generous gift has benefited me are innumerous. I have never been so humbled as I am now: poised to graduate after five of the most formative and enriching years of my life. Five spectacular years made possible, in great part, by your generosity and progressive vision for America and the world. As I continue my studies, I hope that I will someday be able to meet the two of you and thank you personally.”

But if faced with the opportunity, Archer said his conversation would probably be a bit simpler.

“In real life it’d probably just be ’Can I hug you? Please?’”

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