One student lost his mother when he was in grade school, another student's father was preparing to take out a six-figure loan to pay for his college education and a third is best-known for bringing attention to Fresno Chaffee Zoo's money troubles.
They are among six Valley high school students who won Gates Millennium Scholarships of up to $20,000 per year for their education, as long as they remain in school.
On average, each student in the program receives more than $11,000 annually when financial aid is factored in.
The program is underwritten by billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda. Each year, 1,000 students are chosen as scholarship recipients. This year, 182 are from California, including six from the Central Valley:
Nine years ago when Angel Arellano was in elementary school, she was upset to learn that Fresno Chaffee Zoo was going broke.
She started a campaign with a letter to the editor in the Fresno Bee that asked people to give $1 to help the zoo, and she folded her own dollar into the envelope. It didn't take long for donations to start arriving in her name. Her mother, Stacey Caha-Arellano, had been a volunteer zookeeper.
The "Dollars From Angels" campaign raised $700,000 and evolved into a campaign for a one-tenth-of-a-cent sales tax. Passed in 2004, Measure Z is expected to raise $100 million for upgrades and operations.
"To me, Angel was the spark that got the community going," zoo director Scott Barton said. "She will always be an important part of the history of Fresno Chaffee Zoo."
Angel, 18, now a senior at Sanger High School, thinks her zoo campaign likely was pivotal in her getting a Gates scholarship. She will use the money to attend California State University, Monterey Bay in the fall.
"I honestly didn't think I was going to get it because it's like a one-in-a-million chance," she said.
Angel, who carries a 3.9 GPA and is 46th in her class of 611, plays water polo and is in student government. She works at Fresno Chaffee Zoo on weekends and coaches the Sanger Seals swim club on weeknights.
She plans to major in psychology, play water polo, get her doctorate and become a professor.
When he was in grade school, Roberto Altamirano's mother died. His father, Ciro, a dairy worker, struggled as a single parent to raise three boys.
Ciro Altamirano didn't attend high school, and neither did his late wife.
But they gave their children valuable advice.
"They taught me to be hard-working, help out other people and if I try hard and do my best I can accomplish anything I want to," said Roberto, now a senior at Redwood High School in Visalia.
Roberto, 17, will attend UC Davis in the fall to study chemical engineering and wants to get his doctorate and become a professor. But he also wants to do his own private research in nanotechnology to help people.
Roberto was on Redwood High School's Science Olympiad team that represented Tulare County at the state competition. He ranks fourth in his class of 500 with a 4.15 GPA.
Teacher Ana Romo said Roberto is always the first to offer help in community projects through the school's Key Club and Advancement Via Individual Determination, AVID, the course she teaches. She assigned him president of the AVID club because of his quiet leadership abilities.
"If I ever need people to help with events, clean-ups or fundraisers, he is always there."
Hanford High School senior Alex Longoria said her school career was successful because there was always a teacher to help her.
She will use her Gates scholarship money to attend Fresno Pacific University and become a teacher and speech therapist.
"There has always been a teacher there for me, an adult in a school environment that changed my life in one way or another," she said. "I love helping kids and seeing them grow."
Her aunt, Kristyl Summers, is a teacher in Avenal and inspired Alex to go into teaching.
Alex, 18, is ranked 10th in a class of 342 students with a 4.02 GPA. She serves as the Associated Student Body president and plays varsity softball.
Karen Evangelo, Hanford High's ASB adviser, said she thinks Alex was selected for the Gates scholarship because she is well-rounded and has a strong academic record.
"She is very sincere in everything she does," Evangelo said. "There is no question when you give her a task she will get it done."
But her desire to help children is what most impresses Evangelo.
"We do community service and visit elementary schools where she shares her experiences in academics and playing sports," Evangelo said. "She tells them they must have good grades, determination and a work ethic or they are not going to go very far."
Lucero Martinez thought she was late in filing her application for the Gates scholarship because the online program didn't accept it at first, but then the Porterville High School senior learned from a teacher that she was a finalist.
A little over a month later she found out she was a recipient.
"I was screaming, running to my mom," she said.
Lucero is No. 1 in her class of 330 with a 4.4 GPA. In the fall she will attend UC Berkeley, where she wants to major in math and become a professor.
Lucero, 18, runs cross country and works with preschool children in her spare time, serving as the Easter bunny at a recent egg hunt.
But she doesn't shy away from challenges such as being a math major.
"I am going to prove that I can do it and that women have the capacity to compete with men in mathematics," she said.
Her teacher, Michelle Odsather, said Lucero tutors other students and is "like a second teacher in class." She said Lucero would not be fazed if she is the only woman in her college math courses.
The essay she wrote for the Gates scholarship was about avoiding traditional stereotypes for Hispanic women.
"I think that carries over to her pursuing a degree in mathematics," Odsather said.
Jockey Rojas' father, Jose, was preparing to take out a $100,000 loan to pay for his son's education at UC Berkeley, but money for college is no longer an issue.
Jockey, 17, the No. 1 student in the senior class at Cesar E. Chavez High School in Delano, never thought his road to a college career would be paved with a Gates scholarship.
His future was looking bleak two years ago. Jose Rojas was jobless and the family needed help from an aunt to pay for basics.
At the time, his older brother, Jesus, who attends UC Davis on financial aid, offered him advice.
"He told me to do well in school for my parents," Jockey said.
Jockey didn't disappoint -- he carries a 4.79 GPA. He plans to study molecular and cell biology and wants to be a doctor.
Along with being the top student in the class of 2012, Jockey led his school's Academic Decathlon team to a third place finish among Kern County schools. He also is ranked among the top tennis players in the East Yosemite League.
Bruce Brenna, Jockey's history teacher and Academic Decathlon coach, said he is the kind of student every teacher wants but doesn't often see.
"In the years I have been teaching [since 1994] I have never met a student this good," Brenna said. "I have come across 2,000 students and never had one so organized, intelligent and motivated."
Mai Der Vang
Mai Der Vang, 17, of Fresno, is the No. 1 student in Roosevelt High School's 503-member class of 2012. She will use her Gates scholarship to attend UC Irvine and study civil engineering. She wants to start a business building homes for economically struggling families.
Mai is third oldest of seven children in her family. Her mother, Boon Mee Yang, and father, Chang Vang, are janitors for Central Unified School District. She has two older sisters attending local colleges.
She plays tennis and badminton and is active in school business programs. Her teacher, Linda Jean Voth, said Mai was selected by a panel of business executives as chief financial officer in the school's virtual enterprise class, where students run a business.
Mai manages employees with "grace and strength," Voth said.
Voth said Mai comes to school early, leaves late and always is willing to help others.
On weekends Mai volunteered in an Internal Revenue Service tax preparation program to help those with language barriers, and low-income and elderly residents.
"She is a perfect example that there are no excuses," Voth said. "She is an amazing young woman."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, firstname.lastname@example.org or @beebenjamin on Twitter.