The University of Texas at Tyler began the week by kicking off a tour of East Texas schools to change lives with full-ride scholarships.

The university is surprising students at their schools to announce they’re recipients of the Presidential Fellow Scholarship, which covers their full tuition, fees, room and board, and books for four years.

UT Tyler Director of College Readiness Angie Copeland said the scholarship is valued at about $92,000 total, and that more than 150 students competed for the 14 spots this year.

Copeland said Lee High School senior Elaina Gonzalez put a lot of time, effort and energy toward earning the scholarship. The process involved an essay, interview and rigorous academic standards.

“This is years of preparation,” Copeland said. “Elaina has prepared for this academically since she was a freshman and probably even before that.”

Her mother, Karen Rule, was the first to get the news and shed tears of joy.

“My daughter is just a beautiful human being. She is a smart girl and she works hard in spite of being smart,” Rule said. “She doesn’t just coast by, she really applies herself. She’s a wonderful person and it’s been just a blessing to have her.”

Rule said she was overwhelmed when she heard the news.

“I was ecstatic; I’m just recovering from the tears of joy. I’m proud of her. I’m just so proud of her,” she said. “Elaina, I love you so much, you deserve it. You are a tremendous blessing and joy. I know that you’re going to do your best in college and you’re going to share the blessings I’ve had with you, with everyone.”

Gonzalez thought she was headed to the library to meet with her counselor. She had no idea her mother, friends and representatives from UT Tyler and the high school were waiting to surprise her.

“I’m very excited, I’m very thankful for this opportunity to go to college for free,” Gonzalez said. “I was so surprised. While I was walking in here I was asking my counselor if she had a timeline for various scholarships.”

Gonzalez said she can now focus on finishing the school year strong, while looking forward to getting the full college experience next year. She said she was extremely grateful she had the opportunity to help alleviate some of the financial pressure on her mom.

“It’s going to make the next few years easier,” she said. “It’s really nice to not have that burden on her, for her to have to pay for my college.”

Gonzalez said she’s planning to study marketing and advertising, and is leaning toward going into foreign service.

Jack Pannagl said he groaned when he saw a crowd of people with cameras heading into his health sciences classroom at Whitehouse High School. He thought the crowd was student council members, and was not interested in having more photos taken for the yearbook.

“I’m pretty excited, but wasn’t ready for it,” he said after learning he was named a Presidential Fellow Scholarship recipient.

“It makes the decision for where I’m going to go a lot easier,” he said. “And I don’t have to worry about money or debt.”

Pannagl said he plans to study business, and eventually move into real estate and investing with his cousin.

UT Tyler will be surprising more East Texas students throughout the week. For more information, visit UTTyler.edu

Cory is a multimedia journalist and member of the Education Writers Association, Criminal Justice Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He has appeared on Crime Watch Daily and Grave Mysteries on Investigation Discovery.

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