NORMAL — Dyrell Ashley is a poet, a scholar, a Sunday school teacher, a tutor, and a future neurosurgeon.

But his latest accomplishment is maybe his most impressive yet. The freshman recently became Illinois State University’s first-ever Gates Millennium Scholarship (GMS) recipient. Funded by a $1 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the elite program provides full college scholarships for 1,000 outstanding students from underrepresented backgrounds—all the way through to a Ph.D. if they want.

Ashley was a 4.0 student in high school—well, 4.6 technically—and he was accepted into every university he applied to, including Princeton and Yale. He chose Illinois State.

“I made the right decision. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be,” Ashley told STATEside. “I had these options to go to all these places, but Illinois State was the only one that felt right.”

Ashley grew up in the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. His academic awakening began around third grade, when the story of celebrated neurosurgeon Ben Carson helped spark his interest in science. He pushed himself even harder as a straight-A student at Chicago’s Percy L. Julian High School, which is named for the same pioneering black scientist as Julian Hall on the ISU campus.

“I was always fascinated by the brain. There was something about the brain—I wanted to learn more,” he said.

Early in his senior year at Julian, he began the arduous process of applying for the Gates scholarship. He had to write eight separate essays and show off his community involvement, such as his work with his church or Julian’s poetry team. Two teachers had to write a bunch of essays about him too.

There were times he wanted to quit, but that’s when his friends or teachers would encourage him even more. That included his teachers, Tiffany West, Monique Murray, Krystal Kay, and Antoinette Jones; his friend, Donesia Hogans; and his great-grandmother, Mary Ashley.

In all, there were more than 53,000 applicants, but only 1,000 scholars were chosen.

Fittingly, Ashley found out he’d been selected for the Gates program just after returning home from a trip to Illinois State, where he was visiting his cousin for Sibling Weekend last April. The news was life-changing. He wouldn’t have to attend community college first, and he would avoid student loan debt.

“I have literally nothing to worry about,” said Ashley, who works part-time in retail for spending money. “Academically, all I have to do is learn. I’m getting paid to learn.”

Ashley is majoring in biology-teacher education at ISU. The school he fell in love with during visits with his cousin is now his home, where he’s involved with College Experience, IsReal Arts, and other student groups. He’s also part of Illinois State’s Mentoring and Academic Success Achievement Initiative (MASAI).

“I love the campus size. I love the feel of it,” he said.

While the Gates scholarship won’t pay for medical school, it will cover the master’s degree in biological sciences-teacher education that he plans to get first. One accomplishment at a time.

“For now,” Ashley says, “I’m just letting everything play out.”

Ryan Denham can be reached at