Aaron Villegas is one step closer to his dream of becoming a doctor.

The Sultana High School freshman was one of 11 Inland Empire students honored Wednesday at UC Riverside in the "Save Me a Spot in College" essay competition. The 11 were among more than 8,000 middle and high school students to enter the contest, which awarded scholarships up to $2,500.

"I didn't really think I was going to win. I just wrote it, and rewrote it, and my mom read it, and we sent it in, and I won," Villegas said. "It was about to what we want to be when we grow up, and stuff."

He received a $500 scholarship for his 375-word essay.

"One of the things I've heard most from my mom since I was a little kid is how important it is to go to college," Villegas begins his essay. "Even though I'm an 8th grader and it seems like a long way off, I guess she's right and I've got to start thinking about it more seriously. I'm not really sure what I want to become. Maybe that's why I don't think about it a lot. But I'm beginning to think best in all of my classes, especially science.

"This means that I've got to definitely get a spot in college. Four years are right around the corner and I've got to make sure that I've got a reserved seat in all of my classes. I'm sure that it's going to cost a lot of money to go to medical school, but my mom says we have to have faith that when it's time to begin college, the finances will be there.

"One of the reasons why I want to become a doctor is because I have asthma. It's a challenging sickness, especially when you have to have P.E. and do sports. Last year, one of the band members died on the field of a band competition during a field show. If I could become a doctor, having experienced the illness, then I can feel compassion for my patients and possibly be part of a research team to find a cure.

"I know it's going to take a lot of hard work, good study habits, and a determination to not give up. They say that after I finish four years of college, then I have to go four more years to medical school. But it'll all be worth it when my ID badge reads 'MD' after my name. Maybe I'll be able to go on some missionary trips with my mom. She was a missionary teacher in Guatemala and recently went to Honduras on a medical clinic to help the poor and needy. But first things first! I need my spot in college in order to make my dream of becoming Dr. Aaron Villegas come true. I'll make my mom so proud of me. Will you be part of that dream and help me get my spot in college?"

The contest and scholarships are intended to bring attention to the Campaign for College Opportunity, an organization attempting to change the precipitous drop in college attendance among high school graduates in California. The state now ranks 40th among all states.

In addition to attempting to call attention to existing means of helping students attend college, the organization also backs proposed legislation by state Senator Jack Scott (D-Pasadena), SB 890, the Early Commitment to College Act of 2007.

The bill would guarantee a spot in a state college and financial aid for qualifying students.

The organization cites a similar program in Indiana as proof the act can work: In the 1990s, the state launched the 21st Century Scholars Program, committing a spot in college and a financial aid grant equal to tuition for four years to low-income students in middle school. The program helped more low-income students go to college and helped move Indiana from 40th in college attendance to 9th among all states.

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.