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Each year, a cohort of 1,000 new Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) flock to the annual Virginia Freshman Leadership Conference, where they are officially welcomed into the GMS family. Mechanical engineering Ph.D. student Justin Bobo remembers attending the conference as a wide-eyed first-year student in 2011.  

“That conference really inspired me to hit the ground running. Don’t take no for an answer. Try, try, try. And if you fail, you just keep trying,” said Bobo.

Five years later, Bobo was selected to attend the 2016 conference as an alumni mentor, where he led workshops and helped incoming first years prepare for the challenges of higher education. “I was able to give back some of the knowledge and tools I’ve gained over the years. I looked at the freshmen and thought, wow, this was me. And now I’m able to give them some answers.”

In 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recognized the need to make universities a better representation of what most communities really look like. The foundation established a $1.6 billion scholarship program to help outstanding minority students attend college and become the next generation of leaders. For the past 16 years, the GMS program has given 20,000 scholars the financial resources to pursue their education.

The program offers ongoing academic resources and professional development opportunities for the select group of recipients, chosen from 70,000 applicants each year. This year, Bobo was also selected to represent the Gates Foundation at Institute on Teaching and Mentoring (ITM) Conference in Florida, which provides workshops and networking opportunities for 1,100 minority Ph.D. students from all over the country.

Where can I help, how can I help? That’s the attitude of all the scholars.

Justin Bobo, MechE Ph.D. student, Carnegie Mellon University

After his own Freshman Leadership Conference, Bobo really did hit the ground running. He received his bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State University in aerospace/mechanical engineering with a minor in mathematics. He interned with NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He interned for Google at one of their startup data centers. And Bobo, who remembers his trip to the conference as his first time on an airplane, has since studied abroad and travelled to several countries.

Bobo’s latest stop is Carnegie Mellon University, where he is specializing in biomechanics and soft robotics. “I’m really interested in taking a convergent engineering approach, so not just focusing on the traditional mechanical field. As the world is changing, you need to be competent in more than just one area,” he said. For his doctorate work, Bobo is studying how neurons respond mechanically, as well as applications for flexible sensors in many industries, including the medical field.

The GMS program is ending this year, so there won’t be another cohort, or another conference for Bobo to attend. But the GMS program will fund a scholar all the way through a Ph.D. program, so Bobo expects that more GMS scholars like him will come to study at Carnegie Mellon over the next few years.

The Gates Foundation has been a strong support system for Bobo, so it’s important to him that he does his part to mentor younger scholars. Even though he has come far in his own academic career, Bobo plans to stay connected with his GMS family and young scholars who are just beginning their own journeys.

“The Gates Foundation has a lot of opportunities for scholars to interact with each other. And for someone to give such a big investment in your future, you need to give back,” said Bobo. “Where can I help, how can I help? That’s the attitude of all the scholars.”