Wheeling High School senior earns full ride and perfect match with MIT

A self-described “far reacher,” Wheeling High School senior Kristina Sakayeva knew she had earned the kind of sterling academic and co-curricular record that could interest top-tier universities. She just had to identify which school and determine how to make that connection — and pay for it.

Enter the QuestBridge Scholarship, a program that “connects the nation’s brightest students with leading institutions of higher education.” Its mission: To increase the number of talented students joining the nation’s best schools and national leadership ranks, particularly students who otherwise would not have the financial resources to attend these schools.

Remember the part about Kristina aiming high? QuestBridge asks applicants to rank schools in order of preference before the program finds a match. She placed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the top of her list, and — voila — the nation’s top technology university is welcoming Kristina via a full-ride, four-year scholarship.

Kristina zeroed in on MIT while searching for schools that offer strong computer technology programs, particularly in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

“MIT was the only school I found that offers a major in AI and decision making,” she said. “It’s also one of the few schools that allows undergraduates to conduct research.”

Toward that end, Kristina hopes to participate in the university’s UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program), in which students collaborate with faculty on real-world research. Which meshes with Kristina’s vision perfectly.

“I wanted a community that embraces uniqueness and encourages faculty and students to work together,” she said.

While Kristina can’t wait to get started at MIT and already has completed an online program designed to immerse incoming students in university life, she is not moving on without fully appreciating Wheeling High School’s role in her journey.

“Wheeling High School has given me so many opportunities: All the AP classes, all the honors classes, the clubs and activities and all the career pathway classes,” Kristina said. “I feel like Wheeling has set me up for success and helped me grow as a person from freshman year to now.”

Through her immersion in the school’s mock trial team, Kristina said, she polished her public speaking skills, met new people and nurtured personal connections. National Honor Society membership allowed her to volunteer and be part of the community. Both activities, she concluded, contributed to her “growth mindset.”

“Mock trial isn’t the easiest,” Kristina said. “You have to put a lot into it. I progressed from being a quiet freshman to, as a senior, being able to mentor freshmen.”

She also cited Wheeling’s flexibility in ensuring that her academic challenges nurtured her budding passion for computer technology; the school creatively set up a rigorous senior-year learning experience for her when there was no off-the-shelf course available to follow up her work as a junior in AP Computer Science A.

So appreciative is Kristina that she said she cannot tell her story without offering a shoutout to several educators, including mock trial coach Alex Diesbergen, AP Calculus BC teacher Ann Ku, language and composition teacher John Uhrik, computer science teacher Ashley Walsh and counselors Grace Alderson, Catherine Giroux, Arturo Fuentes, Joanne Amador-Zapata and Wheeling’s Principal Dr. Bradford Hubbard.

Taken as a whole, Kristina said, her Wheeling experience has put her in the perfect position to pivot to her next exciting chapter.

“My family gained a sense of hope for my future,” she said. ‘They’re proud of me. All my hard work has paid off, and I’m excited to continue learning and growing at this amazing university.”

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