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Gates grants college dreams

At around 3 p.m. on April 20 Joan Fernandez received an e-mail that changed his life.

The e-mail came from The Gates Millennium Scholars — grants funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — notifying the 17-year-old senior at Francis Lewis HS that he had won one of 1,000 scholarships that enabled him to get a free ride at Princeton University.

“I was a little skeptical at first about the application process because it’s super competitive,” Joan said, with 1,000 scholarships awarded out of 23,000 applicants. “I’m excited because it opens up so many doors at the moment.”

Joan, who moved from the Dominican Republic to Queens Village when he was 2 years old, said his father is disabled and his mom is a baby-sitter, so going to a prestigious school would have been out of the question if he had not won the scholarship.

“They barely have enough to get by,” said Joan, who also received Jerry Seinfeld and Horatio Alger scholarships. “I was basically fully covered, regardless and that was an amazing feeling.”

The senior, who scored a 2120 on his SATs and has a 100 average, said his education was always important to his parents.

“My parents, they never pushed me as other parents do to their children. They just tell me to strive the best I can,” he said. “They were so excited. For them, that was the greatest news they ever heard. To them, they felt accomplished. They showed me just how great this country is.”

Joan sent applications to Princeton, Columbia and Brown universities — and got accepted to all three schools, but chose Princeton after he attended a leadership conference last summer at the New Jersey college.

Joan said he met teens with different ideologies, noting his peers at the conference included gay teens from the Midwest who have to deal with less tolerant societies than he does in New York.

Although Joan is straight, he is vice president of the LGBT club at Francis Lewis.

“I understand how different it can be for them,” he said.

Joan is also a consultant to the student government and is involved with the youth group at Our Lady of Lourdes, a Queens Village church, ´╗┐where members hold blood and can drives, help the homeless and set up collections for victims of the Haiti earthquake.

He said he chose Princeton, in part, because he would feel “far too comfortable” living in the city if he attended Columbia.

“I’ve never experienced suburban life,” he said. “Princeton has a lot of opportunities that I want to participate in. I’m going to do whatever it takes to adapt.”

Unlike his classmates, who usually get out of school by noon, Joan stays until 3 p.m. because he piled on the Advanced Placement courses.

While he is unsure about what he wants to do after graduating from college, Joan said he chose to major in education.

“I feel college is the perfect time to explore that passion,” he said. “I love education.”

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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