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HILO, Hawaii (AP) — On Saturday, April 15, Kupa'a Thomas opened his mailbox and learned that his life was about to change forever.
As the 18-year-old extracted the fat bundle of envelopes addressed to him, a single phrase ran through his head over and over. Only the first of the three words he was thinking — "Holy" — is fit to print in a newspaper, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported Saturday.
"My ears started ringing," he recounted with an enormous grin Tuesday as his proud father looked on. "I'm still amazed by everything."
The flurry of thick envelopes meant only one thing — he had been selected as one of 1,000 students across the country to receive the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship, which will essentially pay for his next 10 years of higher education or through the completion of a Ph.D as he pursues his dream of becoming a research chemist.
The scholarship is named after Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, whose foundation funds the grants.
Ever since he was diagnosed with autism at an early age, Thomas has had to work hard to win over some of the people who underestimate him, his dad, Terry Thomas, explained.
Like many other autistic individuals, the teenager displays at times an almost uncanny facility with mathematics and science, while also struggling to develop the social skills that seemingly come so easily to others.
But now that he is set to close out his tenure at Kamehameha Schools' Hawaii campus in Keaau as its high school salutatorian, among many other honors, Thomas has proven his ability to adapt and rise above adversity.
"Kamehameha Schools accepted Kupa'a in seventh-grade," Terry Thomas said. "Since then, he hasn't had nor needed any of the (special education) services provided in public schools. . He did it all on his own."
Once Thomas had taken all the chemistry classes offered at his school, he bought college-level text books online and taught himself organic chemistry in his spare time, his father said.
Thomas won over many people as he progressed through school, including his teachers and guidance counselor.
"Kupa'a is highly intelligent," said Kamehameha counselor Malcolm Helm. "And he's grown over the years. He's always been academically strong and took academics seriously . but he struggled in one key area: his growth socially. He's a kind young man, and he's always doing the right things, he's always pono. .
"But with people with Asperger's and autism, his decision making skills are somewhat limited. . But over time he grew from that. He's amazing. He's never made the same mistake twice."
Thomas said that Kamehameha was a great environment for him, and despite the fact that the other kids "can tell I'm kind of off," he's participated in a number of activities apart from academics, including paddling and cross-country running, he said. And he calls his recent experience at his senior prom, "my highlight of the year."
Thomas said he was thrilled to learn he'd been selected for the scholarship, especially since he has two siblings, Nanea, 16, and Kauila, 12, who will also likely be heading to college.
"I'm hugely grateful . I'm not putting a burden on my family," he said.
Thomas plans to major in chemistry when he begins school at the University of Colorado Boulder 's College of Arts and Sciences Honors Program in the fall. His exact specialty is still something to be decided, but the young man says he dreams of working in research, and possibly working to develop new pharmaceuticals.
"I want to learn more about the world and how things work," he said.
Information from: Hawaii Tribune-Herald, http://www.hawaiitribune-herald.com/
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