Leo student wins coveted Gates scholarship: Eder Cruz says he is setting a good example for brother by going to college

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, May 22, 2011

Eder Cruz is used to standing out. He transferred into Leo High School midway through his freshman year, making him the new kid.

What’s more, Eder, who is of Mexican descent, was the only non-African American student in the building.

And he remained the only non- African American student there for 2 1/2 years.

Now he is the school’s first Gates Millennium Scholar, winning a package that will pay all of his college costs at the school of his choice through his doctorate, should he choose to go that far.

He is one of five students from Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago to receive a Gates Millennium Scholarship this year. The others are: Gabriella Perea, Mother McAuley High School; Celeste Hernandez and Megalit Ortiz, Cristo Rey; and Michelle Cazares, St. Martin de Porres. Nationally, 1,000 minority students received the scholarships based on their financial need, academic excellence and community service.

Staying nearby

Cruz, 18, plans to go to Valparaiso University to study engineering. Some people have suggested he look at more high-profile, more expensive schools, now that money will not be an issue, Cruz said, but he’s pretty sure he’ll stay at Valparaiso.

“I really liked the professors in the engineering department when I visited there,” he said. “It seemed they were really interested in the students.”

Cruz lives on the Southwest Side with his mother, younger half-brother and his brother’s father. He thinks he is setting a good example for his brother by going to college.

But his example started years ago.

Catholic preference

He started high school at Cristo Rey in Pilsen, but found that it was just too hard to get there; the three buses he took meant a 1 1/2- hour commute each way. So he started looking for another school.

His mother insisted on a Catholic school, so they looked at the ones with the lowest tuition rates, and came upon Leo, in Auburn-Gresham.

When he visited, it was pointed out that all the students were black, but he said that wasn’t a problem.

And it never was.

“At first, they were like, ‘What are you doing here,’” he said. “But they were always cool. They welcomed me.”

In a very short time, no one saw his presence as remarkable anymore.

This year, the school enrolled two more non-African American students, and will have even more next year.

Cruz said a Leo teacher first suggested he and another student apply for the Gates scholarship, and printed out all the materials.

“It was a thick packet,” he said. “I asked if she seriously wanted me to fill it all out. She said, ‘What’s it going to cost you besides time?’”

For Cruz, it turned out to be a profitable investment.