Dave Tomlin, Ruidoso News May 10, 2016
A Mescalero High School senior has been named a Gates Millennium Scholar, an honor that comes with a guarantee of full financial support for his college and post-graduate studies and an array of other services and benefits.
“It pays for everything,” said Albert Valdez, “tuition, meal plans, housing, plus tutoring and mentoring.”
Underwritten by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Valdez’s scholarship is one of 1,000 awarded this year, winners culled from a record 53,000 applicants nationwide, “one of the most competitive candidate groups in the program’s history,” according to the notice he received.
Also perhaps one of the luckiest. Valdez and the other 999 recipients named this year are receiving the very last grants from the $1.6 billion program.
“It was a 20-year investment, or until the money ran out,” Christa Moya, the program’s director of financial aid and student services, told the Navajo Times recently. “It’s been darned near 20 years.”
The scholarship’s website says it “was established in 1999 to provide outstanding, African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian Pacific Islander American, and Hispanic American students with significant financial need an opportunity to complete an undergraduate college education in any discipline area of interest.”
Valdez, who is Chiricahua Apache on his mother’s side, plans to study computer science, specializing in robotics and artificial intelligence. He said he’ll get his undergraduate degree in engineering with a minor in business from New Mexico State University, then go on to the University of Wisconsin for his master’s, which the Gates program will also cover.
The youngest of five siblings and the first in his family to go to college, Valdez has worked hard for his achievements. But his counselor, Lisa Morales, said he has also found time and energy to help and mentor his classmates and to assist teachers in trouble shooting their desktop computers and PowerPoint presentations.
“I have a lot of confidence in him,” she said. “I’m going to really miss him.”
Valdez appreciates knowing that the Gates guarantee could carry him all the way to a PhD, but he said he doesn’t plan to go for one.
“You don’t have to decide that right now,” Morales quickly interjected. “You may change your mind by then.”
While that may be true, Valdez has been very clear for some time about his ambitions and goals.
“I’ve been fascinated with robots since I was a freshman,” he said.
His ambition is to develop a machine equipped with a level of artificial intelligence “that can create and think for itself, function just like a human being does.” With such a robot, he said, “instead of taking steps forward with technology, we could take leaps.”
A fan of science fiction literature, Valdez acknowledged the risk that he might be creating a machine that would take over the world and kick human beings to the curb, but that doesn’t faze him.
“That’s always a problem, but I’m curious,” he said with a grin.
Valdez chose New Mexico State partly on the strength of its engineering program and partly because he was persuaded it would be smart to stay close to home for the first part of his college career. He picked Wisconsin for his post-grad work after attending its Engineering Summer Program last year.
“I met a lot of the professors,” he said. “Plus the food was good.”