Deborah Bitanga trembled as she tried to check the mailbox during the weekend.

Bitanga was nervous and emotional, so the 18-year-old Kodiak High School student told her younger brother, Rafael, to do it instead.

“I was scared of a rejection envelope,” Bitanga said.

Then her mom cried.

“She cried like somebody died,” Bitanga said.

But she said her mother was shedding tears of joy: An envelope addressed to Deborah Bitanga notified her she’s one of the 1,000 Gates Millennium scholars for the class of 2015.

Bitanga just became the first member of her family to aim for a college degree.

“Your accomplishment is especially notable in context of the more than 57,000 students who applied, making this year one of the most competitive candidate groups in the program’s history,” the letter in the envelope said.

The Gates Millennium Scholarships, established in 1999 and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is available to high-achieving minorities who have at least a 3.3 GPA, and have demonstrated extraordinary leadership skills.

The GMS website said the program has awarded more than $845 million in scholarships between the 2000 to 2014 academic years. It said more than 11,170 scholars completed a degree since the program’s inception, with 28 percent of the recipients transitioning into graduate schools.

Art teacher Bonnie Dillard, one of the recommenders and nominators, said she was amazed how the young student attained her goal through perseverance.

Six years ago, when Bitanga moved to Kodiak from the Philippines, Dillard said she saw a shy girl, but one who actively broadened her scope and reached out to the community through her volunteer efforts.

Bitanga volunteered at the Baranov museum, documenting and taking photos of items and learning local history, Dillard said. Bitanga also learned the intricacies of the legal system through the teen court.

There were a few times, Dillard said, when Bitanga would approach her crying and worrying about her future. Bitanga, she said, entered all art contests in Kodiak, saving all her winnings for college.

Bitanga said her father, Patrick, worked at the cannery row, sometimes taking home $300 for their family of five. Her mother, Juliet, used to be a cannery worker, but she recently received a license as a child-care provider.

Dillard’s husband, Jim, said Bitanga is “almost a miracle.”

“Just a few years ago, Deborah didn’t speak any English,” he said.

Bitanga, who works at the library during her free time, said several teachers also helped her other than Dillard. Among those she wanted to thank are Jane Eisemann, English teacher Ben Jackson, Kodiak College’s Sara Loewen-Danelski and Hawaii-based journalist Tad Bartimus and her husband, Dean Wariner.

She said she has been accepted by Evergreen State College, a progressive, public liberal arts and sciences college in Olympia, Washington, but she’s still unsure of her major.

Bitanga said she chose Evergreen State because she likes how Olympia is close to nature, just like Kodiak.

Her advice to other students: “It seems so easy, I have a smile on my face, but behind the smile, there’s a lot of pain, there’s a lot of challenges to overcome. … But have the grit, the courage to pursue something that you really want. I mean it’s the American Dream.”

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