Schaumburg native Michelle Kelley still cannot wrap her head around it: Next year at this time, she'll be a graduate student at the University of Cambridge in England, pursuing her love of science.
What's more, she'll be there as a result of earning one of the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarships, a fully funded award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, valued at $50,000.
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The scholarship program's stated goal is to "build a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others."
Kelley, who graduated in 2010 from Hoffman Estates High School, was selected from 800 applicants, and is one of only 40 students in the country -- and the only one from the Big Ten -- to get the merit-based scholarship.
"When I was told I was awarded it, I was a bit incredulous," Kelley says. "So many applicants came from Ivy League schools or other highly selective and competitive institutions, and I was one of the few from a public, state university.
"However, I never felt inferior and I have a lot of school spirit," she adds. "I am very proud to represent University of Illinois."
University officials are thrilled and issued a news release to announce Kelley's achievements.
"The Gates Cambridge Scholarship is one of the pre-eminent awards for graduate study in the world," says David Schug, director of the national and international scholarships program at U of I.
"It sets Michelle up to not only receive an unparalleled education, but also to become part of a cohort of Gates Scholars from around the world."
As a physics major and mathematics minor, Shug pointed to Kelley's research work done over summers at UCLA and the University of Washington, as well as her work on campus as a research assistant this year with Illinois physics professor George Gollin.
Kelley credits her AP physics class at Hoffman Estates High School with "enthralling" her with science. In 2011 she was a counselor at Harper College's InZone camp, teaching a hands-on class called Sloppy Science.
"That's what I find extremely important now," Kelley says, "to give more children experiences in science and it's something I want to work to change."
As one of 90 finalists, Kelley interviewed at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, where her commitment to improving the lives of others came up, she said, as well as her capacity for leadership.
That's where she had a unique answer: She currently is vice president of the Illini's women's water polo club, after also playing at Hoffman Estates High School.
"Water polo has influenced me as an undergraduate to manage my time wisely and to prioritize," Kelley says, "as well as to help lead a team of over 30 girls toward a common goal."
At Cambridge, Kelley will study for a master's degree in scientific computing, in order to further her role as a researcher and advance her public scientific outreach efforts.
She ultimately hopes to enter a physics doctorate program before beginning her career as university-level research physicist.
But there was an added benefit to landing the Cambridge scholarship: Churchill College also has a water polo team, on which she expects to play.