In June, Riverside senior class president Kali Huettl (right) was named a Gates Millennium Scholar – fulfilling the promise her mom Kelly (left) made nearly two decades ago. (MPS photo)
It would be a long journey for little Kali and her mom, who was 15 years old and had just finished her freshman year in high school. Kelly would lose her own mom the following year and the next decade would be marked by poverty and uncertainty.
But along the way, Kelly never lost sight of her goal: Kali was going to go to college.
In May, Kali and Kelly got some big help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which awards good through- graduation college scholarships to 1,000 talented high school seniors nationwide each year. As Kali heads off to Clark Atlanta University in the fall as a Gates Millennium Scholar, two fellow Milwaukee Public Schools seniors are also making plans for the future as Gates Millennium Scholars: Riverside University High School’s Jessica Curry will attend UW-Whitewater and South Division High School senior Mayra Alaniz was accepted to Georgetown University.
At a press event honoring the three students, MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton noted the importance of this scholarship: “This is a full ride,” he said. “They have achieved something that will open doors for them for years to come.”
As early as elementary school, Kelly would talk to Kali about the importance of going to college. She would ask her young daughter, “Do you want to have to borrow $5 for gas? In order for you not to be poor you have to go to college.”
According to Riverside University High School director of guidance Natalie Anderson, Kelly was doing all the right things for her daughter. “Parental involvement is critical to a child’s education,” says Anderson.
As mom was planting the seeds for future success, Kali also started to recognize the importance of making the right choices herself. “Since she was in fourth grade, she has been hanging around with people who push her in school,” says Kelly of her daughter’s friends. You have to surround yourself with positive influences, Kelly notes.
Once she got to Riverside, Kali had an even bigger team working to make sure she got to college. “Our goal is to build student awareness from the start,” says Anderson. “From the opening assembly their freshman year, we are talking about college.” Each year students learn about a new aspect of the college-readiness process. The program is successful with large number of Riverside students applying for – and receiving – college admission and scholarships.
Riverside’s program is an example of the MPS commitment to college- and career-readiness. “We have invested in counseling because we know the impact a counselor can make on a student’s future,” says Dr. Thornton.
Anderson suggests parents get to know their child’s guidance counselors and become familiar with the school website and keep an eye out for college-prep and college-readiness programs that are offered throughout the year.
Kali dreamed of going to Clark Atlanta – a distant possibility without a scholarship. On one rare low night, Kali cried about her future and Kelly tried to console her, not at all certain they would pull it off.
But the next day, a large envelope arrived for Kali. “I called her at school and said, ‘You got a letter from Gates – can I open it?’” “No!” Kali screamed. She rushed home with two friends. From the word “congratulations,” there was much jumping, hugging, screaming and crying.
Kali is grateful to Bill Gates, whom she recognized in a recent speech. “If he was here right now, I’d give him a hug,” she said. “What Bill Gates has done for so many kids is remarkable,” says mom Kelly. If she saw him, she would tell him this: “You picked the right person. She won’t let you down.”
Kelly says having her daughter go so far away to college is bittersweet. “I am happy for her and encouraging her to go. I want her to have what she wants – and be where she’ll thrive the most. But I don’t remember a time when we haven’t slept under the same roof.” It is a hard time for the mom who spent nearly two decades grooming her daughter to go away.