Five Paramount High School students have been selected as Gates Millennium Scholars -- a rare achievement among high schools. Funded in 1999, the minority scholarships pay for up to 10 years of study, room and board.
"I was shocked. I still am shocked right now, like I feel like I’m going to wake up from a dream," said Xavier Aldana, one of the scholarship winners. Aldana got the good news when his mom picked him up from swim practice.
"She handed me a big envelope and then I started crying and then I opened it and then more tears came out," he said. Aldana plans to attend the University of Southern California to study filmmaking. Prior to winning the scholarship he had no hopes of affording graduate school, but now he's thinking of going on to get a master's degree in computer engineering.
The other scholarship winners from Paramount high are Thalia Hernandez, Lucio Lopez, Faby Zuniga and a fifth winner who the school has not yet received permission to name. Collectively, the Paramount students' scholarships could add up to more than a $1 million, said Greg Buckner, the school's principal.
"We’re proud of our kids and we’re happy to see the great opportunities that they’re going to have moving forward," he said.
Only five schools have had five or more scholarship winners for each of the last two years, according to Gates Millennium Scholars Program spokeswoman Mary Williams. About 54,000 students applied this year for 1,000 scholarships nationwide.
Hernandez, 18, said learning she'd won the scholarship proved to her that it's possible to overcome challenges. She has a 1-and- a-half-year-old daughter.
"I was overwhelmed because it opened an opportunity to help me further my education," she said. "I want to be a good role model for my daughter and show her that no matter what obstacles you have you can still thrive in life."
Hernandez plans to attend the University of California, Irvine and major in biology before going on to medical school.
Lopez plans to attend University of California, Berkeley and Zuniga will attend Brown University.
The scholarship program began with a $1.6 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Paramount High School is the largest high school in California, with about 5,300 students. Over the years, 17 of its graduates have been named Gates Millennium Scholars. The school also has been listed as one of U.S. News and World Report's best high schools.
Seniors at Paramount High School began applying for the scholarships last fall. News of the wins broke out Tuesday when students began texting their teachers to tell them they'd received confirmation in the mail.
The Gates Millennium Scholars Program has not officially released information on this year's winners because it's waiting for all of the scholars to receive their notification in the mail, officials said. The official announcement is expected out late next week on the program's website.
"This is a really huge thing for us," said school counselor Eric Lindshield. "We've had a couple of other years where we've had three winners in the same year but this is the first time that we've had five."