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Posted on May 28, 2015

Central Valley: Students in Fresno, Bakersfield Stunned to Learn of Bright Minds Scholarship Awards

By Tracy Correa Lopez

When Bryan Wood walked into a Fresno State University conference room and everyone yelled “Surprise,” he was overwhelmed – so was his grandfather, who kept removing his eyeglasses to wipe away tears.

Denise Newton, left, PG&E’s Kern Division senior manager, with Hipolito Ayllon and his daughter, Kelly, winner of PG&E’s $20,000-a-year Bright Minds Scholarship. (Photos by Tracy Correa Lopez.)

The emotion spilled over two hours south in Bakersfield, when high school student Kelly Ayllon learned at the very end of a senior awards ceremony that she, too, had just won a PG&E Bright Minds Scholarship. Ayllon’s father, who had taken a break from his gardening job to attend the mid-day ceremony, cried alongside his stunned daughter.

Wood and Ayllon are two of 10 big winners of the utility’s fourth annual Bright Minds Scholarship program. Each will receive a scholarship worth as much as $100,000 — $20,000 a year for five years toward an undergraduate degree. Winner announcements began last week with Wesley Hacker, a civil engineering major at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, being named the first 2015 winner.

All of the scholarship announcements have been kept secret from the winners.

His family knew the secret

In Wood’s case, his parents knew about the surprise in advance. And his grandparents, in town for Memorial Day weekend from Idaho, were urged to stay an extra day to witness the announcement.

Wood, however, didn’t have a clue. He thought he was coming to campus on Tuesday (May 26) to help with a marketing brochure for Fresno State’s engineering department.

Jose Lejarcegui, left, gets emotional when grandson Bryan Wood is told he is a Bright Minds scholarship winner. Wood is congratulated by Fresno State Provost Lynette Zelezny, while PG&E’s Raj Beasla and Fresno State President Joseph Castro and Ram Nunna, dean of Lyles College of Engineering, look on.

“I just didn’t expect this,” said Wood, a civil engineering major, who was nearly speechless when he walked into a room and saw his parents, brother, grandparents, the dean of the engineering department, the president of the university, PG&E representatives, media and others who had gathered to witness the announcement.

Raj Beasla, PG&E’s director of corporate affairs in the Central Valley, presented an oversized check to Wood and was the first to shake his hand.

Fresno State University President Joseph Castro offered his congratulations saying, “We are very proud of Bryan… You outdid yourself with this one.”

At only 20 and already a college senior, Wood has moved quickly through his education. He has never been in classes with students his own age as he advanced quickly in grade school. During 6th grade, his parents opted to homeschool their two boys because Wood’s younger brother had a learning disability.

Wood hopes to encourage other students to keep motivated and possibly consider engineering. “It’s a lot of fun and there’s so many jobs with engineering out there.”

In addition to school, Wood has worked two jobs to help pay for his education. He is a tutor at Fresno State and works on his uncle’s farm.

“I would like to have him back here teaching,” said Castro.

Surprise at end of school assembly

In Bakersfield, both father and daughter were completely unaware that the senior awards ceremony on Wednesday (May 27) would end with the biggest scholarship ever awarded to a North High School student going to Ayllon.

Denise Newton, Kern Division senior manager for PG&E, was called up to the podium at the very end of the ceremony and made the announcement as members of the audience gasped when she said the scholarship amount. The crowd then erupted when Ayllon’s name was called.

Kelly Ayllon and her father, Hipolito, are interviewed by local news media after the student learned she was a PG&E Bright Minds Scholarship winner.

Ayllon, 18, was in tears when she walked down to receive her oversized check from Newton. Meanwhile, her father, a native of Peru who speaks only Spanish, was well aware of what was happening as a school translator also recited Newton’s words.

The excitement, as news cameras zoomed in on Ayllon, was obvious on her face.

“It’s $20,000… it’s going to pay for my whole education,” she said, as she wiped away tears.

Ayllon, who as a child was sick with a thyroid condition that went mistreated for years, wants to be a pediatrician. The first in her family to attend college, she will attend UCLA in the fall and major in biochemistry.

“I want to make a difference,” she said.

Her father, Hipolito Ayllon, kept wiping away tears as he stood to pose for photographs with his daughter. His wife was working and was unable to take the day off to attend the ceremony; she didn’t know about the surprise announcement either.

“I think you probably picked the best one,” said Ana Robles, guidance technician at the school, who encouraged Ayllon to fill out the Bright Minds application.

“Kelly is probably one of the most deserving students,” said Robles.

Click here to read about other 2015 Bright Minds winners.

Email Tracy Correa Lopez at

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