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2008 Columbia graduate earns first Gates scholarship

Academic greatness

When Elizabeth (Liz) Reetz of White Salmon started school at Whitman College in Walla Walla last week, one thing she didn't have to worry about was how much her undergraduate studies will cost.

That's because the 2008 Columbia High School graduate received "a generous financial aid package from Whitman"--her school of choice--that's backstopped by an award from the Gates Millenium Scholarship Program for minority students.

Reetz, the first CHS graduate to receive a Gates Millenium Scholarship (GMS), was one of 1,000 recipients nationwide this year. The scholarship--worth about $182,000 over four years, more if Reetz pursues post-graduate degrees--will pay all of Reetz's "unmet" education-related expenses as long as she remains a full-time student in good academic standing.

Columbia High counselor Matthew Whitmire said Reetz "was chosen [for the award] due to her outstanding academic record in high school and for the potential that she represents to continue achieving at such high levels."

CHS librarian Julie Davis, who served in the role of recommender and as a mentor to Reetz during the GMS application process, also had high praise for her former Mock Trial team star.

"I've been in education for over 20 years and have met only a handful of students of Liz's caliber," Davis noted. "I know she will `go forth and do good things' and make our school, community and her family proud."

But until she got word she had been selected to receive the scholarship, Reetz, like many students, worried how she would make ends meet. Whitman's financial aid offering still left her about $8,000 short of balancing her budget for the school year. Her options for filling the gap were student loans and out-of-pocket money.

"Before I got the scholarship, I was stressed out about having to deal with loans and earning so much money," noted Reetz, the oldest of four children in a single-parent household. "I don't think my mom ever fully grasped how much college would cost. She wouldn't have been able to help much at all."

The University of Washington--one of three schools, along with Reed College in Portland, Ore., on Reetz's short list of college preferences--offered Reetz a full-ride scholarship ("no loans, no gaps"), "but I was determined to go to Whitman," a small, private, four-year liberal arts school.

Receiving the Gates scholarship, she said, "made it possible for me to think about what I really wanted in a school, without having to worry about how much I would be paying to go."

As attractive as the UW aid package was, Reetz knew she wouldn't go there "because I wanted to go to a small, private college for my undergraduate work, so most of the debate was between Whitman and Reed. Ultimately, I chose Whitman because it offered a more diverse, healthy lifestyle and I thought it would give me more options and room to grow than Reed."

The college freshman--one of 430 in Whitman's second-largest first-year class ever--began school on Tuesday, Sept. 2, with a challenging first-semester load of classes: Advanced General Physics, Calculus II, Antiquity and Modernity (The Core), and Women and Gender in Islamic Civilizations. And though she's just getting used to college life, Reetz has sharpened her focus with regard to her academic career.

"I've been thinking about my major a lot this summer," Reetz said. "My tentative major is a joint Physics and Environmental Studies major. My plan is to go into a graduate program for Environmental Engineering."

Mary Williams, director of communications and administration for the Fairfax, Va.-based GMS Program, said the scholarship is a "last-dollar award" that takes into account a student's cost of tuition, books, fees and living expenses for the academic year, as well as the availability of grants and other scholarships reported on the scholar's submitted financial aid award letter.

"The scholarship, for the undergraduate award, may be renewed annually based on satisfactory academic progress, full-time status, and the timely submission of required documents," Williams explained and added, "Continuing Gates Scholars can renew through graduate school in the fields of computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health or science."

Reetz first heard about the scholarship from her "grandmother," a close family friend and school administrator in Vancouver who suggested in the fall of 2007 that she take a look at the application process. Soon after Reetz started the lengthy process with the help of CHS faculty members Doug Miller as her nominator and Davis as her recommender.

"It began with [the writing of] a `million' essays and a lot of stress," recounted Reetz. "I knew immediately that I wanted to work with Mrs. Davis and Mr. Miller, and they were both very receptive to helping me out with the process. Mrs. Davis gave a lot of moral support and made sure I was getting what I needed done, done, and Mr. Miller looked over my essays to help me make them perfect."

Through those essays, Reetz outlined her education and career goals, community service and academic strengths and weaknesses, and described key aspects of her life and character.

Miller, who was required to write a nomination for Reetz and respond to specific questions from the GMS Program, said he also felt the pressure to impress those who would review each application.

"Realizing the magnitude of the recommendation, I made every word work for Liz," Miller noted. He added: "It was the finest I've ever written, stating it was the obligation of the Gates foundation to grant Liz the scholarship based on her incredible qualifications, aspirations and needs."

Once the application process closed in January, though, it was wait and see for all involved. Word of initial success came in February, when Reetz learned she had been chosen as a finalist and that award recipients would be notified in March.

"Knowing I was a finalist made me feel pretty confident about winning, but as March wore on, I started getting nervous when I didn't hear back," Reetz related.

Her anticipation reached a peak when she came to school one morning and a friend told her Davis, CHS's librarian, was looking for Reetz.

"When I found Mrs. Davis, she looked serious, which made me feel pretty unsettled," Reetz remembered. "She told me to follow her. We went to the office and found Mr. Miller, so I knew it was about the scholarship."

But neither Davis nor Miller could keep up the pretense for long as smiles soon broke out on their faces and they told Reetz she had been awarded the Gates Millenium Scholarship.

"I hugged them both," Reetz said of the occasion. "I was speechless and I teared up a little bit. It's not only a huge amount of money, it's an enormous honor."


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