Elmhurst College: Gates Millennium Scholar Brings His Love of Science to Elmhurst

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Gates Millennium Scholar Brings His Love of Science to Elmhurst

Salvador Gonzalez likes a challenge—the more difficult, the better.

Gonzalez, a first-year biology and pre-med major from Chicago, says one of his favorite pastimes is tackling a really complicated math problem, scribbling out pages of calculations in the search for truth.

So it should come as no surprise that when Gonzalez made up his mind to apply for a prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship last year, he wasn’t bothered by the scholarship’s famously rigorous application process. Instead, he approached it in characteristic can-do fashion. “I basically spent my whole winter break working on the application essays,” he recalled. “There was page after page. It was like they wanted to know everything about me.”  

The effort paid off. Out of 54,000 applicants, Gonzales was one of just 1,000 students nationwide to win a Gates Scholarship, allowing him to attend Elmhurst  tuition-free. The scholarship, launched by a $1 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 1999, aims to increase opportunities in higher education for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

“I have to admit, I jumped around a little bit when the notification came in the mail,” Gonzalez said. “It means not having to worry about money.”

It also means that Gonzalez, a first-generation college student, can pursue his dream of a career in the health professions. His interest in the field dates back to the day when he was fitted for his first pair of glasses at the age of 7.

“I remember being really fascinated by all the instruments and machines they used to test my vision,” he said.

Now Gonzalez hopes to make a career in optometry. He is working with Elmhurst’s Patterson Center for the Health Professions to arrange a shadowing opportunity with a local optometrist and learn more about the field.

Gonzalez came to Elmhurst from UNO Charter School Major Hector P. Garcia, MD Campus in the Brighton Park neighborhood of Chicago, where he made a habit of putting in long days at school. He said it wasn’t unusual for him to arrive at seven in the morning and leave at seven at night. Gonzalez was active in the school’s band and guitar ensemble and was a member of the architecture club, but it was his studies that absorbed most of his attention.

“My heart has always been in the sciences,” he said. “I’m a virus and bacteria kind of guy.”

Gonzalez is so passionate about science that one of his high school counselors urged him to write a love story about his lifelong relationship with science for his Gates Scholarship application. Gonzalez took his counselor’s advice, however reluctantly. (“I was like, uh, sure.”) But he drew the line when the counselor suggested he read the story to his classmates. Gonzalez says that no one but the Gates Scholarship administrators will ever read that literary effort.

The essay did help him earn his Gates scholarship, though, an achievement that Gonzalez said made his parents very proud. His father likes to brag about Gonzalez whenever possible. His mother, too, was thrilled about the scholarship. But her pride is mixed with another emotion, Gonzalez said.

“My mom was happy about the scholarship, but also a little worried. She’s protective of me, and she knew I would feel a lot of pressure to keep my grades up so that I could renew the scholarship,” Gonzalez said. “She knows me. She said, “I’m glad for you, but I don’t want you to stress out.’”

So is Gonzalez stressing out at Elmhurst?

“I handle it,” he said, confidently.

The Elmhurst environment helps. “The atmosphere is relaxing,” he said. “It’s perfect. Small classes. It feels like college.”

Which is not to say that Gonzalez’s work ethic has not followed him to Elmhurst.

“He’s a very hard worker,” said Assistant Professor Kyle Bennett, one of his first-year biology teachers. “It’s all about putting in the effort to get to the result.”

As the Spring Term dwindled to its final weeks, Gonzalez was in the midst of several year-end projects. He was particularly concerned about one coming due, a long English paper on the decline of the middle class in Chicago. He was approaching it with the same diligence he brings to his science studies.

“It’s hard work, he said. “But you have to do it.”

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