Gates Millennium Scholar recipient and student

NAU alumna Cecilia Estudillo, pictured right, earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 2009 as a Gates Millennium Scholar and master’s degree in counseling and student affairs in 2014 as a Continuing Gates Scholar. Estudillo’s academic success earned her several recognitions including a Gold Axe Award. Also pictured is NAU alumna Kesia Ceniceros.

A scholar program is building momentum in the success of underserved student populations at Northern Arizona University and nationwide.

The Gates Millennium Scholars, established through a $1.5 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a flagship program for the United Negro College Fund, has increased its current enrollment at NAU to 33 students with nine new freshmen last fall. Eleven scholars already have earned a dozen degrees through NAU with the support of the program.

The Gates Millennium Scholars’ overarching goal is to develop a new generation of leaders, and its first step toward that development is removing education’s financial barrier for high-performing, low-income students. Each year, 1,000 high school seniors are selected as scholars for a good-through-graduation scholarship at the university of the student’s choice. The program annually supports 5,000 students nationwide, many of whom are African-American, Native American, Alaska Native, Asian Pacific Islander and Latino.

Seven of NAU’s nine new scholars are Native American students from Tuba City, Kayenta, Winslow and Whiteriver. They are pursuing a range of degrees that includes nursing, engineering, biology, forestry, education and criminology.

Scholars also receive leadership development opportunities, academic and social support services, and mentoring. The program’s graduation rates are exceptional—87 percent of its scholars graduate in six years, the same academic achievement for students from high-income families—and nearly 30 percent higher than the national average graduation rate for all students.

NAU President Rita Cheng said the program aligns very well with outreach and support services aimed at increasing enrollment, retention and graduation rates, especially for Native American and Latino student populations.

“The Gates Millennium Scholars program is a natural fit for NAU because we understand how important student support services are to overall success, especially for first-generation and underserved student populations,” said Cheng, a first-generation college graduate herself. “Scholars are choosing NAU because they know we care about their success.”

Erin Grisham, executive director of NAU’s Educational Support Services, credits the growth of the Gates Millennium Scholar program to the university’s commitment to access and student success. Educational Support Services encompasses the university’s outreach and support for underserved and low-income populations including five federal TRiO programs, Native American Student Services, Nizhoni Academy and NAU Earn to Learn.

“Our college access programs in Educational Support Services work very hard to assist students in applying for and being selected as a Gates Millennium Scholar,” Grisham said. “This commitment is evidenced by the number of scholars on campus and the success of these students. They are engaged on campus, participate in service learning projects and serve as leaders in a number of student organizations.”