Awaiting a decision that would decide his future short-term, Angel Gaona received a text message he wouldn’t let himself believe.
Its first word was “Congratulations” and it came from an insider in the selection process for the coveted Morehead-Cain Scholarship to the University of North Carolina. But it wasn’t official and it was early.
“I was thinking, there’s no way he’s talking about me getting the scholarship,” the North Lenoir High School senior said. “It wasn’t even 5 o’clock yet.”
It was Angel Gaona’s time, though. As the official notification confirmed later that Friday, Gaona is one of about 70 graduating seniors – about 3 percent of all candidates – selected for the nation’s oldest merit scholarship and one of the most prestigious.
The winnowing process began late last year. Eighty percent of nominees were eliminated by December and that field of semi-finalists was narrowed to 126 finalists in February. Gaona and the other finalists spent the first weekend in March at UNC, where they were interviewed again, sat in on classes and participated in campus activities.
“They really made you feel at home,” Gaona said of Final Selection Weekend. “We spoke to (Morehead-Cain) scholars who were doing amazing things. I almost felt out of place. I’m thinking to myself, there’s no way I’m going to be as good as these people, no way I’m going to do what these people are doing. But I was hopeful and something worked out.”
Valued at about $80,000 for in-state students, the Morehead-Cain Scholarship covers all expenses for four years of undergraduate study. Scholars also participate in summer enrichment programs.
Just days after he graduates from North Lenoir, Gaona will embark on the first of these summer opportunities, a leadership program at a location he can pick from a menu of about 50. “I’m thinking about Alaska,” said Gaona, the son of Paula and Gregorio Gaona of La Grange.
It will be a summer quite different from those spent picking peaches or working in tobacco, an aspect of the student’s life that particularly interested Morehead-Cain interviewers, perhaps for what they said about his work ethic.
North Lenoir High principal Gil Respess shares their respect. “Angel’s being awarded the Morehead-Cain scholarship is an excellent example of what can happen when one sets academic goals and works hard in obtaining them,” he said. “He is a young man of great integrity and is well respected by his peers and educators.”
Ranked No. 1 academically in his class, a spot he shares with a classmate, Gaona played soccer for North Lenoir, has volunteered at the Neuseway Park planetarium and works an after-school job. He spent last summer at North Carolina Governor’s School studying math. He came to North Lenoir through La Grange Elementary School and E.B. Frink Middle School.
"Angel's being selected as a Morehead-Cain Scholar is an extraordinary accomplishment, not only for Angel, but also for North Lenoir High School and Lenoir County Public Schools," school counselor Jennifer Hollingsworth said. "He is a highly motivated, intensely determined student who accepts nothing less than the best from himself as a student and as a person. He is a very deserving recipient of this scholarship. We are all so very proud of him!"
Gaona plans to study pre-med at UNC, go to medical school after college and become a cardiologist.