Sky has no limits for Elgin astroengineering student

  • Maddie Koldos, 18, of Elgin, will be attending the University of Southern California to study astroengineering after being named a Quest Scholar by the national organization QuestBridge.

      Maddie Koldos, 18, of Elgin, will be attending the University of Southern California to study astroengineering after being named a Quest Scholar by the national organization QuestBridge. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Maddie Koldos, 18, of Elgin, is already reading textbooks for her upcoming freshman year at the University of Southern California, where she will study astroengineering.

      Maddie Koldos, 18, of Elgin, is already reading textbooks for her upcoming freshman year at the University of Southern California, where she will study astroengineering. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Maddie Koldos, 18, of Elgin, said a turning point was a short but enlightening internship at Boeing headquarters in Chicago, which gave her a taste for what a career in engineering can be like.

      Maddie Koldos, 18, of Elgin, said a turning point was a short but enlightening internship at Boeing headquarters in Chicago, which gave her a taste for what a career in engineering can be like. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 7/16/2015 5:45 AM

Say "Mars rover" to Madeline Koldos, and you'll see the 18-year-old's eyes light up. As a little girl growing up in Elgin, science shows like "The Magic School Bus" and "Through the Wormhole" had the same effect.

Maddie, now 18 and a recent graduate of Bartlett High School's Academy of Science, Engineering and High Technology, will turn that passion into action by studying astroengineering at the University of Southern California -- a goal she achieved after being named a Quest Scholar by the national organization QuestBridge.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Astroengineering, she explained, is "engineering focused on making vehicles that leave the atmosphere," such as satellites, rockets and more.

"We have so many more opportunities to explore so many different places. Technology like this can help improve our life here on Earth, but also help us go places we never thought we'd be able to go," Maddie said.

Seeing the amazing images of Pluto sent home this week by the New Horizons spacecraft left Maddie feeling "excited and hopeful" for the future of space exploration.

"Pluto is more than 4 billion miles away from Earth, and if we can get the New Horizons probe close enough to take images of it, it really puts into perspective how far we can send robotic crafts and what else can be discovered," she said.

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Maddie carried a 4.51 weighted GPA in high school and got a 32 on her ACT. She was a member of the school's robotics team -- which last year won state -- and speech team.

A turning point for her was a short but enlightening internship at Boeing headquarters in Chicago, which gave her a taste for what a career in engineering can look like, she said.

Maddie is among 1,500 high schoolers across the nation named Quest Scholars through QuestBridge's regular decision process, said Claire Graham, the organizations's communications associate. The organization -- which matches low-income students with top universities -- does not divulge the exact number of applicants, but admittance is "highly prestigious," Graham said.

"This is a huge accomplishment," she added.

The university's financial package reduced Maddie's tuition from about $60,000 to $6,000. She also earned smaller scholarships through Ronald McDonald House Charities and Foresters Competitive Scholarship Program, which lowered the amount to $700 that her family will have to pay yearly for her schooling.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Maddie, who lives with her father David Koldos, her stepmother and two younger siblings, said that getting the QuestBridge scholarship was a tremendous relief from financial pressure.

"I was so incredibly scared my junior year (of high school) about paying for college," she said. "I thought I'd be absolutely drowning in student loans and never be able to pay them off, especially if I wanted to go to a good engineering program."

To help with finances, she's worked for years as a lifeguard and swimming instructor at the Centre of Elgin, putting in about 15 hours a week during the school year and up to 35 hours a week in the summer, she said.

"Sometimes it's harder for people of lower income to focus on school and stay involved, and search out for the opportunities they could get, and really deserve, when they have things at home that distract them," she said.

David Koldos said the cost of college would have been prohibitive for the family, which relies on his disability check after he suffered a knee injury and later lost his job in 2008. Before then, he'd worked in design and manufacturing engineering for nearly 30 years.

"I'm not proud of being on disability, but I worked really, really hard for many, many years and I paid into the system all those years," he said.

Maddie always got good grades, and never needed to be pushed or prodded, David Koldos said.

"She was self-motivated, no doubt," he said, recalling how even at age 5, she'd have him double-check her spelling in her drawings.

Maddie credits both her parents with helping shape her.

"When I was growing up, my dad always treated me with equal opportunity when he was building cars or working at his work," she said. "He always wanted to include me in this technology he was working with."

Her mother, Bridget Byrnes of Elgin, works as a programmer and is a great role model, Maddie said. For one, she was the only woman in her engineering graduating class at the University of Texas at El Paso, Maddie said.

"She's kind of my hero when it comes to that," she said, "letting me know that I can do whatever I sign up to do."

Maddie was steadfastly dedicated to reaching her goal of studying astroengineering, said David Marszalek, her guidance counselor at Bartlett High. Her teachers only had positive things to say about Maddie, who always had a "I'm not going to let anything get in my way" attitude, Marszalek said.

"She's a lot more organized than your typical average person -- let alone a high school student," he said.

Maddie -- who already is hard at work reading her college textbooks before leaving for California next month -- said her dream is to work for SpaceX, a California company that designs and manufactures rockets and spacecraft.

So what about detractors who say we should be spending more money on problems on Earth rather than space exploration?

For one, some techniques developed by NASA have found practical applications in everyday life, such as the development of specialized gear for firefighters, Maddie said.

But more importantly, it's all about the bigger picture, one that right now has no limits, she said.

"It's so critical to understanding where we are in the universe, what is out there," she said. "There is so much we have no idea about. It really is the final frontier."

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