Chris Colhoun in grey shirt in Tanzania this summer.

Chris Calhoun and his mom, ChaJuana, had been anxiously awaiting word on whether his college scholarship grant application was accepted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

In April 2013, it came. 

Calhoun, who was a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School at the time, received the scholarship, according to a letter he received from the foundation. His award: $50,000, which would cover his entire cost of attending four years at Emerson College in Boston where he had been accepted. It would also cover graduate school.

But then everything changed. 

Calhoun and his mom received another letter right after the first one, this time saying that a mistake had been made and he would not be receiving the grant. Weeks of back and forth discussions with the foundation proved fruitless. Calhoun, a top student in both high school and grammar school, as well as a published author since he was 11-years-old, ended up having to take out a $13,000 student loan in order to attend Emerson last fall, where he maintained a 4.0 GPA. 

This year, he and his mom are scrambling to get him back to Boston for his sophomore year, where he’s studying creative writing. They said they can’t take out another loan and are trying to get the foundation to honor the acceptance letter they originally sent out. Making matters worse, Calhoun has only two weeks to pay his tuition to Emerson in order to return this fall.

“Of the 54,000 high school seniors that applied, 2,000 are chosen as finalists,” said Calhoun, 19. “So I was chosen as a finalist sometime in March 2013. So I was like, this is great news. We just knew that I would be chosen in the final 1,000.”

He received a letter on April 15, 2013 from the foundation stating his acceptance for the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which targets low-income minority students.  

“So we get a letter saying congratulations, you were awarded the scholarship. But then a couple of days later we get another letter, dated the same day, saying, ‘Oh, we made a mistake, you were denied the scholarship,'” Calhoun said. “We were very confused. We were like, ‘What happened.'”

Calhoun said his high school counselor also received the acceptance letter. 

“Now, we’re really confused. We went from excitement to devastation and back to excitement,” Calhoun said, adding that his counselor called the foundation to find out what was going on.

According to Calhoun, his high school counselor was told that he was more than qualified for the scholarship but that the foundation had made “errors, which had “nothing to do” with him. 

“They wouldn’t say what those were and they wouldn’t tell us anything,” Calhoun said. 

He and his mom, who worked at the Chicago Public Schools until being let go this year due to budget cuts, have gone public with their crusade to get Calhoun “his” scholarship. They’ve started an “Honor Letter” campaign to persuade the foundation to follow through with the original acceptance letter. 

They’ve gone on WVON radio’s Cliff Kelley Show to tell their story. They’ve contacted other media as well. They’ve reached out to community organizers and clergy on the West Side for support. ChaJuana grew up on the West Side and later become a community organizer there back in the 1990s. 

They’ve received support from elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and West Side Ald. Emma Mitts of the 37th Ward. Both have called and/or emailed the Gates Foundation on the family’s behalf, requesting that the foundation resolve the matter by following through with the grant. 

According to Calhoun and his mom, the foundation says he can apply for the scholarship at another time. They also repeatedly asked what was the error, but have yet to get a specific reason, ChaJuana  said. 

After being told that he was a finalist, the foundation requested more information but later kept telling Calhoun and his mom that his application was “incomplete,” ChaJuana said. 

She and Calhoun, however, insist that they sent in all of his application materials initially and resent them every time as requested. ChaJuana is also adamant that Calhoun’s high school counselor also sent in all of the materials.

“We know that we’re sending it in; we know that the counselor is sending it in,” she said. “We realize the importance and urgency in getting these things in; he’s a finalist at this point, so now we’re like at the home stretch.

“But there were constant errors that were made, and it was made on their part” ChaJuana said. “It’s just so unfair and it’s not right. I just feel like they don’t want to own up to it. So, we’ve started a committee and we’ve gotten the community involved.”

Money is tight in the family since ChaJuana’s layoff from CPS after more than 20 years employment. Calhoun’s grandmother also lost her job as a registered nurse this year.

With that, plus the interest in paying off the first loan, getting a second loan is out of the question, Calhoun and his mom said. And having Calhoun postpone his sophomore year to find a job here is also not an option, ChaJuana insists.

“He needs to be back in school,” she said emphatically. ‘As a parent, that is my main concern, to get him back in school. He has two internships, all of the clubs and organizations that he’s involved in. He’s on the dean’s list. He does not need to be here getting a job anywhere. He doesn’t need to be working a fast food job or none of that. He needs to be in Boston.

We all make mistakes, I get that,” she added. “Computers make mistakes, I get that. You cannot make this kind of mistake, period, not for this particular child. And I definitely cannot have Chris lay off a year. Cannot have that. Will not have that.”

At Emerson, Calhoun maintained a 3.9 grade point average, not too far off from his GPA in high school and grammar school in Oak Park. He’s also on Emerson’s Dean’s List. With an interest and talent for writing that began in childhood, Calhoun published two books before graduating high school — a children’s book in 2006 when he was 11, and a fantasy novel while a junior. The latter was shopped around Hollywood by his book agent and drew interest from the studios, according to Calhoun.

While in Boston, Calhoun got an internship at book publishing firm Beacon Press; his duties included reviewing submitted book proposals with his editors.

“I get a chance to see it from the other side now,” said Calhoun, who has another internship in Boston at a creative writing nonprofit which mentors kids. 

Calhoun also got the chance to travel oversees for the first time in his life this summer. He spent six weeks in Tanzania in late May/early June, volunteering at a local grammar school. He traveled there via International Volunteer HQ, a New Zealand-based organization that sends people overseas to help citizens in impoverished countries. Calhoun said his interest in social activism began around the same time as his writing as a child. 

He wants to continue all that he started last year in Boston. His tuition deadline is Aug. 21, and he and his mom think Emerson will extend it if they can get the Gates scholarship in time.

“In a little bit less than two weeks, if I still owe the amount that’s due, then I can’t go back to school,” Calhoun said.

They said they’d like to reach out to Bill Gates personally to resolve the matter. 

“If he knew what was going on, he’d step in a fix this. I have no doubt,” ChaJuana said.