12 years later, scholarship winner earning doctorate

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A lot has happened in the 12 years since Shayla Young earned a scholarship opportunity that meant her entire post-secondary education was free.

Young, 29, earned the Gates Millennium Scholarship in 2008 just before she graduated from Central High School in Grand Rapids. The scholarship, backed by billionaire Bill Gates, meant free college tuitionas far as she wanted to take her education in select fields.

“I know that I can go higher in my education without any problems as far as finances goes,” Young, whose last name was Willis at the time, told News 8 in 2008. 

She had no idea then that she would take it this far.

On Thursday, Young will cross her final hurdle before earning her doctorate degree in education from Michigan State University.

“I’m going to be defending my dissertation on May 7,” she said gleefully during an interview with News 8 Tuesday. “I’ve done all of this for completely free.”

Young earned her master’s degree at Purdue University after completing her undergraduate studies at Ohio State University. Her undergrad studies were in social work but Young made the switch to education after spending time with youth while working for the Boys and Girls Club in Ohio.

“I know what getting a degree has done for me and my family and my trajectory so I’m just looking to ignite that and support that for students from where I come from,” Young said.

Young is currently serving as coordinator for the Grand Rapids “To College Through College” program. She hopes to continue with similar work after graduation.

“Post-secondary education in the form of a college degree changed my life,” Young said.

Young, a first-generation college graduate in her family, credits her parents among those who have supported her goals. 

She also recalled the impact one of her teachers had on her life. Dr. Ron Gorman, who recently served as GRPS’ interim superintendent, was one of Young’s grade school teachers.

“When I was in second grade, he was my teacher and he marked up my paper and he said, ‘Keep writing. You’re a good writer,’” she recalled as tears started welling in her eyes. “To know that I had to write 10 essays for my scholarship — I mean, man, those seeds were planted early on.”

The Gates Millennium Scholarship has been replaced with the Gates Scholarship and provides tuition-free undergraduate education for its recipients. Young is among those who interviews candidates to help select winners.

Young is dedicated to giving back and hopes to instill a spirit of tenacity in young people.

“My message is simple and it’s ‘just keep going,’” Young said. “Just do it.”