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Gates Foundation Initiative Aims To Build Bridges To Student Achievement In Jacksonville

Rhema Thompson

There were a few things the nearly 350 high school students sitting in Edward Waters College's Milne Auditorium on Thursday had in common. They are all men of color, they all have a 3.0 GPA or higher, and they all have a desire to go to college.

Sixteen-year-old D’Alesandro Barber, a junior at Andrew Jackson High School, hopes to major in psychology someday.

“Success starts at an early age...and it would be best to start that success early,” he said as walked down the aisle of the auditorium with his mother and uncle.

Stanton College Prep junior Carlton Lewis Riley — also among the day’s attendees, is aiming to study civil engineering in the Ivy League.

“I was thinking maybe Princeton but that seems very high, but yeah, Princeton,” he said as he sat beside his father.

Like the dozens of other young men in attendance, they are also hoping to achieve their goals while avoiding hefty student loans all-too-often associated with college. That’s where the Bridge Builders Male Initiative Workshop comes in.

The workshop was held at Edward Waters College by the Gates Millennium Scholars Program in an effort to boost the number of Jacksonville recipients of the full-ride scholarships.

The scholarships are funded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and administered through the United Negro.

While the Millennium Scholars program has been awarding scholarships for the past 15 years, Thursday was the first time representatives have brought their Bridge Builder initiative to Jacksonville.  

“We wanted to come down to Jacksonville and give these young men an opportunity to hear about the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program,” said Kevin Cooper, relationship manager for the program.

The scholarship program teamed up with the Edward Waters College Black Male Explorers program and Duval County Public Schools to invite high-achieving male juniors and seniors of color to attend the event.

Attending the workshop for the coveted scholarship is just the beginning, Cooper said.

“This is a highly competitive scholarship program,” he said.

In fact, out of the 53,000 students who applied this year, only 1,000 were actually selected. Four of those students came from Jacksonville this year--Alexander Fernandez-Morell of Wolfson High School; Koonisha Green of Raines High School; Chanice Howard or Lee High School; and Anna Huang or Sandalwood High.

In 2011, Brion Eason of Raines High School was among the chosen few. He is currently studying graphic design at Florida A & M University.

“I first found out about it while doing some research online for scholarships. I knew that I was about to graduate and I needed some money,” he said. “So I found this opportunity and I said why not.”

Eason was nominated for the program by his academic advisor in Jacksonville University’s Upward Bound, a postsecondary education advocacy program.

“It was a major accomplishment for me,” he said.

Thursday, he spoke to the young men in Milne Auditorium in hopes that they will achieve the same.

During the day, Eason and others discussed the application process, its requirements and the importance of presentation.

Also, among the guests was nationally-recognized author and motivational speaker Alex Ellis of nonprofit “Tied to Greatness”, who capped the day off with a “rites of passage” necktie knotting ceremony.

“Gentlemen, whether you know it or not, people look at you and make judgments about you simply based on how you look,” he said. “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”

The Gates Millennium Scholars Program is open to Pell Grant eligible, minority students who achieve at least a 3.3 GPA and will be entering their freshman year of college the following school year.

Students wishing to find out more about scholarship opportunities can visit

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.