SPRING HILL — His first computer, a Hewlett-Packard, was kind of slow.
Christopher Echanique was just 9 years old and still learning about computers, but his creative, artistic side was intrigued by what might be possible with such a machine.
Nine years later, Echanique is off to college to study computer engineering. He'll be aided immensely through the benevolence of one of the legends of the computer world, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
A self-described computer geek, Echanique will graduate Thursday night from Springstead High School. In August, he'll be a freshman at the University of Central Florida.
His path through higher education will be made easier by a coveted Gates Millennium Scholarship, which has an estimated value of $250,000 and can provide for all of his financial needs through graduate school.
Echanique is the first senior in Hernando County to receive the prestigious Gates scholarship, which aims to help African-American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian Pacific Islander American and Hispanic American students with high academic and leadership promise.
The goal, according to the program's Web site, is to increase the numbers of students in these target groups in the disciplines of computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health and the sciences.
Echanique said he was initially intimidated by scholarships with large amounts attached to them. He applied, thinking it was only for about $1,000.
Last January, on the night it was due, he typed out his application, including eight essays. "I submitted them and crossed my fingers," he said smiling at the late-night memory.
Ranked seventh in his graduating class, Echanique earned a 4.24 weighted grade point average, demonstrated financial need and showed leadership skills at the school.
On a recent morning, he talked excitedly about the software the school's Web Academy used to update the school Web site.
"When you click a button and something cool happens, it's all done in Adobe Flash," he said.
On his computer, now a sleek black Dell laptop, he typed quickly, explaining how they managed to get the school's mascot, an eagle, to soar across the screen on the school's Web site.
Computer engineering is a good choice for him, said his mother, Yolanda Echanique. It combines creativity, math, and computers — all the things he loves.
"A lot of people like to memorize formulas," said Echanique. "I like to understand the logic part of formulas, how they work."
When he isn't typing on his computer, his hands move quickly, emphasizing his words as he speaks.
Selecting a school was tough, he said. His parents had already invested in the Florida Prepaid tuition program. He considered applying out of state, but ultimately limited his applications to Florida schools.
"I wanted it to be financially reassuring for (my parents)," he said.
He was impressed by the small class sizes and the collaborative relationships UCF has with businesses.
He hopes to create Web sites or be involved in software development. Maybe he'll follow in his father's footsteps and own his own business.
His parents, Yolanda and Robert Echanique, own Echanique & Son Mechanical Corp. in Spring Hill, which installs commercial air conditioning systems at places like CVS. An older brother, Andrew, is a student at the University of Florida.
When Echanique is done at UCF, he said he might aim for a job at Microsoft. Or maybe, with the help of the Gates Scholarship, he'll pursue a master's degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he said.
But before heading off to college, there's one more thing Echanique wants to do.
He hopes to learn a little more Web coding so he can update the family business Web site.