When the first blue folder arrived at the Sampedros' Eugene apartment in 2009, the family didn't quite know what to make of it.

The package, with a letter of congratulations from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, essentially guaranteed a full college education for Elizabeth Sampedro, then a senior at Churchill High School.

It offered Sampedro, a second-generation immigrant from Mexico, the possibility of graduate school funding.

It unlocked a future that her father, a landscaper, and mother, a housemaid, had strived to earn for their children.

On that day five years ago, the family could hardly grasp that their distant dream of higher education had been mailed to them in a big blue folder.

But when a second folder arrived last month for 18-year-old Liliana Sampedro, they had no doubt about the gift they had received.

"I broke out sobbing," Liliana said. "One of the first things I thought was, 'I'm a doctor.' They might as well have handed me my Ph.D. diploma."

The Gates Millennium Scholarship, established in 1999 by a $1 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, every year picks up unmet needs for 1,000 students around the country, or contributes the full amount that students would have to pay themselves.

Ashlea Haney, 18, a senior at Springfield High School, also received the scholarship this year, from a pool of more than 50,000 applicants nationwide (see accompanying story above).

In addition to undergraduate education, the program offers graduate school funding in the areas of computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health or science.

It allowed Elizabeth Sampedro, the first Churchill student to receive the scholarship, to earn a degree in chemistry at Willamette University in Salem and go on to pursue her master's degree in public health at Oregon State University, where she plans to graduate next year.

And this year the program will send Liliana to Brown University in Providence, R.I., where she plans to study sociology on her path to becoming a college professor.

The opportunity is humbling for the Ivy League hopeful, who knows that her grandmother, just two generations her senior, is illiterate. "I always think of how much it took to get me where I am," she said. "I inherited my parents' struggles, my grandparents' struggles, my great-grandparents' struggles, and they are all mine."

She knows how her mother, who never graduated from elementary school because she moved so much in Mexico, ached for her four children to have an education.

She knows how her father worked six days a week, sometimes doing landscaping work at 18 properties in a single day.

"That's kind of the mentality that they learned (in Mexico)," Liliana said of her parents. "You have to stand up for yourself, make something of yourself, because no one's going to do it for you."

For Liliana, that meant enrolling in a rigorous International Baccalaureate diploma schedule and pursuing extracurricular activities such as the National Honor Society and the Rotararians' Interact Club.

Her high school counselor, Shannon Roseta, said only about 15 Churchill students earn the prestigious diploma each year.

"She has taken the most difficult curriculum that we offer and has done it with a perfect 4.0 record," Roseta said.

Liliana is also the lead facilitator in Churchill's Latino Student Union, the chairwoman for the school's Women in Science and Engineering club, and a representative for the Superintendant Student Advisory Committee.

Having participated in the Japanese immersion program at Kelly Middle School, she speaks Japanese as well as Spanish and English. She teaches violin and plays Jarana, similar to a ukulele, in a traditional Mexican band.

She dances in a local group called Ballet Folklórico Alma de México, performing around the community in traditional Mexican dress to encourage children to embrace their heritage.

"She isn't just a student. She's been involved in trying to raise the awareness for the Latino community," Roseta said.

Both Sampedro sisters, Roseta added, "are wise beyond their years."

Liliana credits Kelly Middle School's "Ganas" Latino mentorship program for much of her success. She was first profiled about the program in The Register-Guard as an eighth-grader, and said it had helped her come out of her shell.

At home and in her community, Liliana is surrounded by Latino culture. But in her high-achieving classes, she says, most of her peers are white.

"It's a very different story" for many of her fellow students, she said. "You're not going to meet someone whose dream is to buy their mom a house."

But that is a dream of Liliana's, having grown up in apartment complexes her entire life.

"The kinds of people who live there aren't the wealthiest," she said of the place where she currently lives, located behind a Stop N Shop Market.

Some residents are high school dropouts or single parents, and some are involved in domestic violence situations, she added. "We're all here struggling, and we recognize that."

Growing up in the Latino community, she said, some of her friends and extended family were deported, and some never returned. She and her siblings wondered if her parents, who were only recently able to gain citizenship, would go missing as well.

"There was always this tension that I saw and the struggle that I understood -- even as a little girl," she said.

Some of her eight Gates application essays focused on topics like those. The essays were so personal, she said, that she allowed only her sister Elizabeth to edit them.

When Elizabeth applied for the Gates scholarship, she was equally private with her essays, asking only Liliana, an eighth-grader at the time, to read them.

"You start pouring your heart and soul out there, and I think it shows," Elizabeth Sampedro said.

Elizabeth Sampedro, who still lives near her family and commutes to graduate school, hopes to eventually bring her public health skills to Lane County to combat health disparities she sees in minority groups.

"The mission of Gates is to invest in America's future," she said. "I feel like I almost owe it to the Latino community, because I've been given the gift of education."

Follow Kelsey on Twitter @kelseythalhofer . Email kelsey.thalhofer@registerguard.com .

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