The odds were stacked against Crockett High School senior Sara Navarro.
More than 52,000 students from throughout the country applied this school year to become Gates Millennium Scholars. Only 1,000 of the scholarships are awarded each year by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, making Navarro's chance at success just 1.9 percent.
"That was just unbelievable to me," Navarro said. "My first thought was, 'What did I do right?'"
The application required her to write eight 1,000-word essays and get recommendations highlighting her leadership qualities and community service work. Last week, Navarro found out she had received the scholarship, which provides full college funding for the duration of recipients' undergraduate and graduate work.
"It still has yet to process that I'm a scholar, that I'm a recipient of this tremendous blessing," she said. "When I first read the email that said congratulations [and] that I'd won, my first reaction was that I'd no longer have to burden my parents. I was so worried that they'd [have] loans and be in debt to help me. That was just tremendous."
Navarro said she learned about the scholarship through Crockett's College Forward Program, which also helped her with community service activities. Those activities included participating in the holiday Blue Santa program and in the effort to clean up nearby Garrison Park. Her leadership work includes being vice president of the school's National Honor Society and parliamentarian in the Health Occupations Students of America Club.
Navarro, an only child who has lived in Austin since she was 4 years old, said she plans to use the scholarship at UT-Austin to become a pharmacy technician. After completing two years of prerequisites, she plans to apply to the College of Pharmacy at UT, as well as to the programs at Texas Tech University and University of the Incarnate Word.
She said her parents are extremely excited for her.
"I called them crying and I kept telling them, 'I won, I won!' and they didn't understand," she said. "I first told my dad and he was just speechless and then he said, 'I cannot believe it. You worked so hard. You damn well earned this.' And of course my mom's telling the whole family so I'm getting calls constantly."
The soft-spoken student said she is still trying to fully absorb how the scholarship will change her life.
"I'm still starting to take everything in. I've never gotten this type of attention, and I'm still kind of shy and nervous about it," she said. "But I feel like my hard work paid off, and I'm super proud. I knew from this point on I'd have this big leadership role, that I'd have to maintain exceptional grades and community service and other leadership qualities. I believe now I'm prepared to take on such a role. It's just… I'm still… I can't believe it."
Crockett Principal Craig Shapiro said Navarro has gotten a lot of support from the systems at Crockett, such as College Forward, as well as from her teachers and family.
"When all of the pieces click, good things happen," he said. "We're excited for her. Honestly, I don't know if she understands the breadth of what's about to happen to her—graduate school paid, undergrad paid. We talk about honoring excellence—this is a recognition that there are special students out there that we need to support. Without that support, they may or may not make it. Some kids really earn and deserve that extra bump."
Shapiro praised Navarro for all the work she has done during her high school career.
"I'm very proud of the fact that she has been recognized for all of her hard work and effort," he said. "She's an outstanding young lady who's going to be a leader in whatever field she decides to enter."