"I ran home and went to my mom and hugged her and started crying," Nelson said.
Nelson was one of 10 Philadelphia high school seniors who this month won a coveted Gates Millennium Scholarship, which gives recipients full, or nearly full, rides to the schools of their choice.
The 10 were among 16 students statewide who were awarded one of the 1,000 scholarships. They were chosen from an applicant pool of more than 52,000 students.
Funded by a $1.6 billion grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the scholarships are awarded through the Gates Millennium Scholars Program to high-performing students in low-income situations."We are grateful for students receiving the support of the Gates Millennium Scholars Program because it is not only an investment in the futures of these extraordinary young people, but also in the country's economic strength and competitiveness," said Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, in a statement issued by the Gates Millennium Scholars.
In addition to Nelson, the Gates Millennium Scholars were: Karen Pham from Girard Academic Music Program; Dorcas Adedoja from Northeast High; Radhika Adhikari and Son Nguyen from South Philadelphia High; Jawad Pullin from Mastery Charter School-Pickett Campus; Lypheng Kim from Mastery Charter School-Thomas Campus; Ana DeJesus from John W. Hallahan; Alex Tieu from Roman Catholic; and Imani Richburg from West Catholic Preparatory.
Applicants had to complete a 21-page form that required eight 1,000-word essays. Nelson said he worked on his with his mentor, Allison Parks, director of college and career programs at Russell Byers Charter School in Center City, until the morning the paperwork was due.
"The only way I felt like I could connect with the [foundation] was if I could put them in my shoes and [make them] feel what I feel," said Nelson, who attended grade school at Russell Byers. "This is my struggle, I want you to know my struggle and how I felt, but at the same time, it's a struggle everyone has, but this [essay] is [about] how I overcame that."
Nelson wrote about being in the "middle" - what he calls appearing financially well-off, but still needing financial assistance.
"Unfortunately, because I have two parents who are married and make a stable middle-class income, I am condemned with a lack of financial aid. It seems as though college is built for the gifted poor or the privileged wealthy," Nelson said in the essay.
Parks worked for hours with Nelson on his essays, but it's something that she says she hardly regrets.
"He's very enthusiastic and also just a great kid," Parks said. "I think what we know about success and students now, especially around college, is it's less about being smart than being hardworking, and he's extremely hardworking."
Nelson was part of a large group of students at his high school who applied for the scholarship, but got to share his success with his friend and classmate, Kim, of South Philly.
Nelson was a math, English and psychology tutor, and was formerly on the football and track and field teams while taking college credits at Community College of Philadelphia. Kim was involved in track and field and cross country for all four years of high school, and was a member of Students Run Philly Style, Queer Straight Alliance and GO! Athletes.
This fall, Kim is attending the University of Southern California, where he will major in biology.
"I kind of had some hesitation if I would win," said Kim, 18. "I didn't want to put too much pressure on myself. But I was in shock."
In total, the 1,000 scholarships were allotted to low-income African-American, American Indian, Alaskan native, Asian Pacific Islander American or Hispanic American students across the country who were pursuing degrees in computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health or science.
"This could not have happened to a nicer kid," Parks said. "I just think the world of [Nelson]."