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Meet Sha Ka Paw

School: Benson High School

He dropped into his first American classroom as a sixth-grade student who didn’t speak English.

Now, six years later, Sha Ka Paw is preparing to graduate from Benson this spring.

A spot at Grace University waits for him. He spends much of his days and nights thinking about a long-shot scholarship, funded through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that would pay all of his college expenses.

“That’s the big one,” said Andrea Fresen, who mentors a group of Benson High School seniors through an after-school organization called College Possible. “The Gates is the scholarship of scholarships.”

The Gates, you might say, is Sha’s Moby Dick. He works on it daily. He sends messages about it to Fresen at all hours. The application process requires eight essays, the collection of which tells about the applicant’s life.

But he was not used to spilling his life onto a page. He started the Gates application in October. The first draft of his personal statement was a dry, impersonal essay about his school work.

Start again, Fresen said. Tell your story. So he did.

He began: “What is the meaning of living a life when you do not have any hero that can save you from your trouble?”

And then he set out to answer his own question.

He told his version of a story becoming more familiar in Omaha, where the Karen number in the thousands.

In his Gates essays, Sha wrote about the surprise he felt when he arrived in a Thai refugee camp, and was placed into foster care. He had few possessions. He went hungry a lot.

He wrote about arriving in Omaha, living with another aunt for a few years before he and his older brother got their own apartment.

He wrote about things he doesn’t say out loud, like how much he misses his parents and wishes to live with them again.

“I believe the purpose of my life is to use my compassion I have for others,” he wrote. “Hardship experience is what makes us realize the world around us, and character is our best leadership.”

Story excerpt from “Karen refugee leans on faith in Gates Foundation scholarship pursuit,” by Casey Logan, Omaha World-Herald, December, 23, 2012.

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