Student writes her own ticket to university

Monday, February 28, 2005

In the back of her mind, Kelly McLendon prepares for everything to fall through.

It's safer that way. Easier than letting herself bask in the joy of achieving her biggest dream, only to have it yanked away.

She's going to college. The transition to higher education is something many of her classmates at Jackson High School never think twice about. It's a natural post-high school progression.

But for Kelly McLendon, college has always been the triple-chocolate layer cake on the other side of the bakery window. She grew up in a single-parent home with a mom who worked swing shifts at local factories.

In fifth grade, McLendon made up her mind. She would go to college. She would escape the sort of life her mother had.

"I grew up seeing the future if you don't go to college," she explains. "I didn't want to work in a factory and not have enough money for food."

For six years, McLendon made it her goal to graduate in the top 10 percent of her class. A tough feat at high-achieving Jackson, where only a small percentage of students come from low-income backgrounds like Kelly's.

She joined the marching band in eighth grade. She chose the baritone because it was free. Other instruments had to be purchased.

At Jackson High School, Kelly became involved with the drama club, working behind the scenes on costumes. Her mother taught her to sew. She became a tutor and joined the Future Business Leaders of America. She decided she'd like to major in finance.

But last year, the course she'd been carefully charting changed. Her mom was dying.

Ask Kelly about her dad, and she'll say she doesn't really have one. He visited every few months when she was a child, just long enough to empty her mother's checking account, she explains matter-of-factly.

She has two older brothers. One lives in Mississippi, one is in prison. No one in her immediate family went to college. Few made it past high school. But Kelly was different.

"I've always been expected to do good," she says.

Kathy Hecht McLendon battled cancer for a year. Kelly helped take care of her. She spent weekends at a St. Louis hospital.

She'd never had to work hard in most subjects to maintain a high GPA, but under the stress of cancer, Kelly's grades began to slip. She arrived at school an hour before the first bell, trying to get her homework from the night before done.

Outside of school, Kelly rarely left her house.

"That's how I spent my Sweet 16, too," she says. "I didn't do anything."

Her mom died in October 2003. Kelly moved into the upstairs of her grandparents' old farm house in Shawneetown.

Without her mom, though, there was no one to support her financially.

"I'm kind of on my own now with college and everything," she says.

College and everything.

She got a job at a local shoe store, where she works 25 hours a week to help pay for food, clothes and a car. She works as many hours as she can handle as a high school student, but there's nothing left over to save for college.

Going into her senior year, it didn't seem likely that she'd be able to afford college. Out of sheer necessity, she kept her grades up. A high GPA was her only ticket to college. Her college prep teacher at Jackson High School helped her apply for a few scholarships. But even partial funding wasn't enough to get her through.

'Hey, that's me'

In January, Kelly surfed the Internet, checking up on a few of the scholarships she'd applied for. At www.horatioalger.com, she scanned down the list of winners, as a formality more than anything else.

The Horatio Alger Scholar Award program gives out $5 million each year in scholarships to students who have faced challenges but recognize the importance of a college education. The scholarship requires students to write an essay about the hardships they've faced. Kelly wrote about her mom, about her dream of going to college.

The Internet site listed 109 students from across the country selected for the 2005 scholarships. If she were one of those students, surely she'd have received some kind of notice by now.

Two-thirds of the way down the list, her stumbled over a single name.

"Hey, that's me," she said.

The Horatio Alger scholarships come in various increments. Kelly received the largest, $10,000, to be spread out over four years.

Without it, she wouldn't be attending Southeast Missouri State University next fall. She's also lined up for one of the university's regent's scholarships.

So she's going. The first in her family to make it to college. Still, she worries that something might go wrong. Her scholarships might be repealed or her federal financial aid package won't come through.

"I've always been such a nerd," she says. "I don't want to quit school yet."

cclark@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 128

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