During this graduation season, top students across the Philadelphia region are savoring college scholarships that will help ease their financial burdens.

Perhaps no one is doing more savoring than Jichang Ni and Patrick Osuagwu, longtime friends who will graduate Saturday from West Catholic High School.

Jichang (pronounced G-chang) will major in business administration at Drexel; Patrick will major in biology at Temple.

They will study tuition-free. Their room and board, books and other living expenses also are covered. If they go on to graduate school, and even earn doctoral degrees - those are covered, too.

Jichang and Patrick, both 18, both sons of immigrants - Jichang is himself an immigrant - have hit the gold mine of scholarships: The Gates Millennium Scholars Program.

"No loans, no work-study, no nothing," a smiling Jichang said Friday, the last day of school.

Without the Gates scholarship, Jichang estimated, he'd have owed about $25,000 during his freshman year, despite having a partial Drexel scholarship.

Patrick estimated that he'd have had to come up with $16,000 that was not covered by his Temple scholarship.

"This is sort of like a huge Christmas present," Patrick said. "I'm just filled with joy and happiness. It took a couple weeks for it to sink in."

The buddies, who have been schoolmates since third grade at St Francis de Sales School in West Philly, are the only students in the city to receive the Gates scholarship this year. Statewide, they are among six students, and among 1,000 nationally.

"They are exemplary - what can I say? They have the world in their hands now," said West Catholic Principal Sister Mary E. Bur, who has seen four students recieve Gates scholarships since 2006.

Both Jichang, who has a 4.0 grade-point average, and Patrick, with a 3.8 GPA, are members of the National Honor Society. Patrick was school treasurer and senior editor of the newspaper this year; Jichang served as president of both the World Affairs Club and the Law Club. Although they have had the scholarships since April, both showed up on time and in uniform Friday, and sat for a battery of final exams.

"We have high expectations and demand that students work hard and accomplish what they need to accomplish, daily," Bur said.

While at times Jichang and Patrick appeared modest about their accomplishments during an interview, they were resolute about how they achieved them.

"The scholarship is not an ordinary scholarship. It's given to students that are over the top, that want to succeed. They must show the drive to really be motivated and ambitious," said Jichang, who was born in a village in China's Fujian Province and came to Philadelphia with his parents at age 7.

"I think of myself as a go-getter. When I see something that I really know that I can get, I'm just going to go for it despite the odds," said Patrick, who was born in Philly to parents from Nigeria.

"I'll take a chance at almost anything, and it has paid off."

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and administered by the United Negro College Fund, the scholarship program annually taps high-achieving, financially needy students from minority groups.

More than 20,000 students applied for the scholarships this year, the most since the program began in 1999, said Mary Williams, the program's director of communications and administration.

The 1,000 scholars selected each year are judged on academic achievement, community service and leadership. All college expenses not covered by other scholarships are taken care of by the Gates program through doctoral studies, as long as students keep their grades up.

"These are students who have persevered," Williams said. "The wonderful thing about these students is they may have had challenges, but they have developed plans to overcome them."

Chicago has the most Gates Scholars this year with 32, followed by New York's 24. Philadelphia's pair believe they'll be with the Gates program for some time. Both are thinking of becoming physicians.

Jichang, whose parents own a West Philly carry-out restaurant, is the first person from his rural village to attend college.

His family goes back to visit every two years or so, Jichang said, but once he is finished with his schooling he'd like to do something more profound in the village, like create an education program.

"I had this great opportunity, so I want to give back to them so they can also have an opportunity to succeed," he said.

Patrick will be following three sisters who graduated from West Catholic and are in college. His father is a SEPTA supervisor; his mother, a registered nurse.

"They can move on with great confidence," Bur said, "and without the concern of burdening their families with the cost of college." *