For Kelly Hyles, valedictorian at New York City’s High School for Math, Science and Engineering, a chance to talk about all the colleges she got accepted to isn't boasting — it's an opportunity to inspire others.
The 17-year-old, who was born in Guyana, will head off to Harvard University as a freshman this fall, after having her pick of a whopping 21 colleges, including all eight Ivies. Part of why she's sharing her story is to help other minority students find self-worth and academic success.
“I went to one of nine specialized high schools in New York City and one of the problems is the number of African Americans is decreasing,” she told NBC News. “I’d like to use my knowledge and experience to help advocate for tutoring and mentorship.”
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She chose Harvard after getting an "amazing" financial aid package, she said, and will study biochemistry and neuroscience. She also has a special interest in political science and race relations.
Kelly has devoted a lot of time to helping other students succeed while achieving her own academic accomplishments. While working with the DREAM program at her former middle school in Brooklyn, Kelly helped prepare students for the rigorous entrance exams required by specialized schools such as hers that send students off to top colleges.
"If you don’t have a strong foundation, you can’t do well on the tests,” she said. “I helped kids with testing strategies and gave them courage — I never wanted them to hear they weren’t smart enough. They just needed to put in work in persistence.”
Kelly was 11 when she and her parents and older brother immigrated to the United States from South America. Her mother wanted only one thing for her daughter: a better education.
Anette Hyles worked 15-hour days as a home aide and a certified nursing assistant to provide for the kids.
“From the get-go, my mom was pushing me to get a good education and not to waste any opportunities,” said Kelly. “She’s been a very strong person in my life.”
Kelly wasn’t always sure she wanted to be a scientist.
“I am a very curious person and ask a lot of questions,” she said. “My older cousins said I would be a perfect lawyer or a judge. But in high school my interest in the judicial system dwindled as my interest in science increased.”
For the last two years, Kelly has been doing scientific research at the Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. That has sparked her interest in a career in medicine and, if she is successful, Kelly said she plans to be philanthropic.
“Somehow, I’d like to make it easier for the next generation,” she said. “I really like mentorship and if that is not possible, I’d like to support students financially.”
For Kelly, hard work and tenacity pays off.
“There is no secret recipe how to be successful,” she said. “Persistence and resilience is important in anything that you do. You’ll have a lot of obstacles, but it’s how you bounce back that makes the difference.”