Two Soddy-Daisy High School juniors received the prestigious Leonore Annenberg College Scholarship, worth up to $250,000 each. The pair were among 10 students chosen from across the country to receive the scholarship, which covers tuition, books, food, transportation and a living stipend. This year was the first in which two winners from the same school were chosen for the award.
It's still sinking in. That's what three fresh high school graduates say about the recent news that their college studies - as much undergraduate and graduate education as they want - won't cost a dime.
A world of possibility awaits them after winning the Gates Millennium Scholarship, one of the nation's most prestigious and competitive college scholarships.
The scholaship covers all costs associated with higher education, including books, computers, travel and housing. And it pays for everything from freshman year through a doctoral degree.
The program is aimed at helping move low-income minority students to higher education and eventually into careers where minorities are underrepresented, such as education, engineering and the sciences. It's funded by a $1.6 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Each year, 1,000 students are selected based on their academic performance, leadership abilities and community service.
High school: Dalton High School
Hometown: Dalton, Ga.
College: University of Georgia
When the Gates Scholarship application asked her to explain the obstacles she's overcome, Gabriela Espitia had a tough time.
Life has been good. Her parents, who immigrated from Mexico, work in Dalton's textile industry. Espitia likes living in Dalton, spending time with her friends and being involved in school.
So she answered honestly.
"I mentioned I didn't have any obstacles and how grateful I am to live the life I do," she said.
If her heavily decorated graduation gown was any indicator, her high school career has been jam-packed. There was the National Honor Society collar. The Beta Club stole. And the cords for activities like National Latin Honor Society and Family, Career and Community Leaders of America.
Now she'll move on to the University of Georgia to kick off her nursing studies. She hopes eventually to transfer to a school such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and complete enough education to become a nurse practitioner.
This spring, she waited for the mailman every afternoon, awaiting word from Gates.
And when the thick envelope finally came, she just stared at it, unable to open it. When she finally did, she was so excited that she didn't tell anyone. Not even her parents.
The next day, when her mom came home from work in a bad mood, she laid it on them.
"It cheered her up," she said.
High School: McCallie School
Hometown: Kennesaw, Ga.
College: Belmont University
Chris Lee grew up in churches. His mom is a praise and worship leader, so he also grew up around music. Gospel and hymns, yes. But his interest in music is vast. He raps, but he also likes country, pop and classic rock.
He dances, too. And likes acting. He taught himself to play the piano and the drums. And at McCallie, he's found plenty of ways to shine. He started his own a cappella group, has held lead roles in most school plays and creates his own videos on YouTube for fun.
"We've always sang," he said of his family. "But when I came here I actually thought about it as a career."
Lee said his family pushed him to excel. He attended an intense private school in middle school and found a program that connects students with scholarship opportunities at independent schools like McCallie.
While he got into big-name colleges like New York University, Carnegie Mellon University and Berklee College of Music, Lee says he just felt at home on Belmont University's Nashville campus.
After college, he's hoping to make a career of performing, maybe even on Broadway. But he may hold off a little bit to get a master's or doctorate first.
"It's an opportunity you really can't pass up: to get your doctorate in whatever you want for free," Lee said.
School: Baylor School
Hometown: St. Petersburg, Fla.
College: Florida Atlantic University
College life shouldn't be too much of a stretch for Joshua Smith.
He likens his four years in the Baylor School's Probasco Hall to a college dorm or fraternity house. And, looking at the empty water bottles, dirty socks and flip-flops strewn about his room, you wouldn't really know the difference.
Smith has lived in the same dorm, in the same room, with the same roommate all four years at Baylor. And he's been a prefect there for three years.
"Our dorm is like a brotherhood," he said. "I love this place."
Smith isn't one of those kids who just loves school. He does well, pushes himself and makes good grades.
"I know it's necessary," he said. "And I've always done what's necessary."
He'll go to college in coastal Florida, a little closer to home, though he hasn't decided what to study yet.
And life's not so bad when you don't have to think twice about tuition, books and loans.
"I still don't understand how big of a blessing it really is," Smith said. "For me not to worry about that is something special."
But perhaps he's more excited for his mom.
He's an only child among a big, extended family. And the scholarship means neither he nor she will have to worry about college costs.
"I don't want to be a burden on her," he said.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.