Student activist wins Gates scholarship

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When Bach Tong, a senior at Science Leadership Academy, discovered a big envelope addressed to him with no return label, he nervously opened it to find that he had been named a 2012 Gates Millennium Scholar.

“It was all so surreal and shocking,” Bach said. “It was unimaginable.”

The Gates Millennium Scholars program is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The program aims to provide low-income African American, Latino, Asian, and Native American students who have outstanding academic achievements the chance to complete an undergraduate college education in any discipline at the college of their choice. Students who choose to continue with their education after college graduation may receive additional funding for select disciplines.

The Gates Millennium Scholars program gives financial security to students and their families who could not fathom being able to afford the increasing price of college.

“This comes as a relief for my family. As much as we are honored for receiving this award, we are also thankful,” Bach said.

This year, 1,000 students from 47 states were selected to receive the scholarship, and they will be attending 723 colleges throughout the country. Twelve students from Pennsylvania were selected in this year’s cohort and six were students in the School District of Philadelphia, including Bach.

Bach was introduced to the scholarship by his school counselor, Karina Hirschfield, who organized a meet-and-greet with potential Gates applicants and former Gates winners from their school. Approaching the graduation of their third graduating class, Science Leadership Academy has produced a Gates Scholar every year.

To apply for the Gates scholarship, Bach needed a nominator — a role filled by Melanie Manuel, a teacher at Science Leadership Academy — and a recommender — a role filled by Helen Gym, a parent organizer and a member of the Notebook’s leadership board.

Gym had been a supporter and friend of Bach since he established the Asian Students Association of Philadelphia after the violence against Asian students in 2009 at South Philadelphia High School.

“I thought it was important to organize something that would nurture and support the students affected,” Bach said.

Gym was one of several adult advocates that worked with the group and was excited to be a part of Bach’s application process.

Bach has chosen to attend Deep Springs College in Deep Springs Valley, Calif., a two-year alternative college with a small student body that focuses on academics as well as labor and self-governance.

Bach says that he is not sure what he wants to study or what he will do after graduating from Deep Springs. However, he does know that he wants to continue being an advocate for survivors of violence and people contending with inequalities. Bach is inspired by the strength and tenacity that people demonstrate even when in the most trying situations.

“Through the Asian Students Association of Philadelphia, and prior organizing work against biased violence on Asian immigrant students, I have developed a passion for anti-violence work, people’s stories, and their resilience,” Bach said.