“I just remember being really happy and showing it to my mother. And she had no idea what it was. But when I told her, she went crazy. Then we opened it and my mom hugged me. I was really happy, too, because it’s not like a normal scholarship that they just give you a set amount. It’s like you’re in a special community almost — only 1,000 applicants got it out of 23,000 who applied this year. So I was ecstatic.”The cause for all this joy and jubilation was that the recent Loyola High School graduate, who grew up in the heart of Watts where he went to St. Lawrence of Brindisi School, found out he was a 2011 Gates Millennium Scholar. So now he was definitely headed for the Ivy League — Brown University to be specific, where he had been accepted and also awarded a generous scholarship. (The two combined will cover tuition, room and board, and other educational expenses, including the cost of books and school supplies.) He plans to major in computer science but also take biology and chemistry classes because, with his love of animals, he still has visions of being a veterinarian. The Gates Millennium Scholars program, first funded in 1999 by a $1 billion grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is widely considered the best scholarship for minority students in the United States. It has supported more than 13,000 African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Pacific Islander American and Hispanic American low-income students with high academic and leadership promise. The program not only works with colleges and universities to cover the total cost of higher education, but also includes graduate school funding in computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health and science. Moreover, it involves hands-on leadership development with the goal of developing a “diversified cadre of future leaders for America” by providing outstanding minority students with seamless financial support from undergraduate through doctoral degrees.Concerning academic achievement — one of the three pillars on which the scholarship is based — Diego concedes having a 4.7 GPA (close to A-plus) for four years at Loyola didn’t hurt. “I study a lot,” he reports. “Not as much as some people that I’ve met. But I definitely study a lot when I need to. When I was a junior, it was crazy. I studied easily five or six hours a night. And I wouldn’t get home until at least five o’clock because I’d have to take two buses that took me an hour-and-a-half.” For community service, he volunteered two late afternoons a week tutoring students in St. Lawrence’s after-school literacy program for mainly public school students. He also did a bunch of “computer things” for the inner-city parish and school such as make EXCEL spreadsheets, write articles for their newsletter and direct traffic at festivals and other events. And for Loyola’s senior service project, a whole month-long break in January devoted to fulltime volunteer work, he helped out in the parochial school’s computer lab and coached PE. “I never keep track of my required community service,” the 18-year-old remarks with a half-grin. “So I always have trouble listing my hours, even though I’ve done so much.”In regards to leadership, the recent high school graduate gives an “I-don’t-know” shrug and hypothesizes that the Gates people must believe he has some potential along those lines.Dodging gangsWhat’s truly amazing is Diego accomplished all this while growing up in the midst of severe social and family turmoil. Until his junior year of high school, he lived at 109th and Wilmington, near the fabled Watts Tower and ground zero gang territory. But, without really thinking about it, he managed to not only survive but prosper. His two older brothers, Eduardo and Sergio, told him what to watch out for on the street and how to act. His father, then an auto mechanic, drove him to school, while he usually got a ride home from his mother, who sometimes worked multiple jobs, or a brother or a friend’s parent. And when he did walk home, he went out of his way to avoid Markham Junior High School, a recruiting locale for many gangs. Still he felt pressure to join a gang as one of his brothers had. A couple times he was even confronted with the infamous query that has resulted in the senseless killings of so many L.A. inner-city youths: Where you from? The adolescent deftly dealt with that by answering, “I’m not really from anywhere. You know, I don’t get involved with that kind of stuff.” He explains to simply ignore a gangbanger’s question could be just as fatal as giving a wrong address. “It’s really shaky ground,” he says matter of factly. “It’s like holding a hot potato. You have to really watch what you say.“I didn’t notice it, but I did do a lot of things that were good for avoiding trouble,” he notes. “Like not buying a bike. A lot of my friends who biked everywhere had their bikes stolen constantly. And then you obviously had to look like you hadn’t anything expensive on. And, obviously, not wearing certain colors was very important. Like I never dressed in all red or all blue or all green or all purple. To me these things almost seemed like second nature because I grew up in that.” And then there was his own family to deal with. “I love my two brothers to death. But especially with my brother Sergio, who dropped out of high school, he had kind of an anger management issue,” he confides. “He just blew up in fits of rage sometimes, and I really couldn’t handle it then, because I didn’t want to stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. dealing with him. “Plus my parents, who are from Nicaragua, were always fighting. I remember always trying to get them to be friends and get back together. And I never succeeded at it. They loved each other; they just couldn’t be married.” During the fall of his junior year at Loyola, Diego moved in with his oldest sister, Maria, and her boyfriend in Norwalk. The gang issue suddenly went away and he finally found an amiable environment in his new home. But Maria died from the complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma the following summer, and his parents divorced. Today, he lives in a blended family with his deceased sister’s boyfriend, his other sister Fatima and their mother. “I remember a big problem with me was that I’d hold things in and not tell anyone,” he confides. “I didn’t want to burden others with my problems.”A Jesuit educationWhere the soon-to-be “Brownie” freshman found peace was at Catholic school, for which his religious parents sacrificed greatly. He also received financial support from the Catholic Education Foundation, St. Lawrence of Brindisi School and Loyola High School.“I think I got a great education at St. Lawrence, especially in this area,” he says. “I think when you grow up in somewhere like Watts a Catholic education, even if you’re not Catholic, is just so necessary. Because besides from having religion classes and things like that, it just instills in you a type of morality and conscience that you really need, and that you’re not going to learn as a kid just naturally.”He calls Loyola High School a fantastic place: “I can’t say enough about how much I love Loyola. I think the Jesuit education that they intertwine with what you do there is really important. Kairos, which is a senior Ignatian retreat, was a really great experience. So was the senior service project. And then there’s the whole all-boys’ thing. It fostered a sense of brotherhood that I couldn’t experience anyplace else. When I came there, I felt like I could really be myself because, you know, I didn’t have anyone to impress.”But where did he get the drive and determination to put in all those long solitary hours of study? Diego gives a thoughtful answer. “I would say that what has pushed me to try my hardest pretty much throughout my life has been a combination of thinking about my future, emulating good role models and a personal obligation to do right at school and at home,” he muses. “It was never really just one thing motivating me at any point in my life. When I was much younger — around fifth grade and below, and didn’t really understand that my actions had a large effect on my future — I still felt a desire to finish my work and get good grades.“I guess a large part of it was that I loved my mother so much that it really hurt me to ever let her down, especially when I was much younger but still so now. I drew a lot of motivation from making my parents and my siblings happy, which was also why I never really needed gifts or money. Their approval was all I ever really wanted, and I was lucky enough to have a family that showered me with praise.”About his next educational life adventure, the articulate Diego Morales — who will join two other recent graduates of St. Lawrence School, junior Ana Cuellar and sophomore Joseph Rosales, at Brown — is almost at a loss for the right words. “I’m really excited,” he says. “I can’t wait to go.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0715/diego/{/gallery}