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Taking flight: Sacrifice, study lead senior on way to being his family’s first college student

FNS Photo by Eric Hylden Grand Forks Central High School senior Ian Kelly is headed to the University of North Dakota next year.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series following the experiences of one high school senior and his family as they go through the college application process, from start to finish. It will look at the decisions that have to be made as they pursue their college goals.

GRAND FORKS — Grand Forks Central High School senior Ian Kelly won’t soon forget the day he was accepted to the University of North Dakota.

In fact, he didn’t even realize that he’d been accepted. At first, he thought the packet was just another batch of information the university sent him about more deadlines.

But once he started reading the letter out loud, his mind started racing, and his mother, Mary, who stood nearby, started to whoop. He jokingly chided her.

“I was like, I understand your excitement, but I’m trying to keep it professional here,” he said. “I read it, and I’m like, wow. This actually happened.”

College acceptance isn’t such an emotional experience for everyone. For Kelly, however, the envelope contained a future that he’d pooled all of his energy into for the past three years, effort that cost him long hours of work outside of class and forced him to sacrifice his weekends and a spot on the state cross-country running team.

Kelly is one of another graduating class of North Dakota students who plan to attend college soon. Once he starts at UND next fall, he’ll not only be a first-generation college student, but also the first of his military family to get a shot at becoming a commissioned officer after he graduates.

He also represents an average student in a changing educational environment. Admission standards to North Dakota colleges and universities are rising this fall in the state’s effort to improve graduation rates and better prepare students for their careers. But Kelly’s progress is the result of self-initiative and an effort through the Grand Forks Public School system, which has been preparing students early for life after high school.


Like many students, he made sacrifices to improve his grades.

During his freshman year, he spent several hours meeting with counselors, teachers and diligently staying after school to get better on subjects he couldn’t understand. He joined junior ROTC, the military program for high school students that helps prepare them for a career, which cut four hours out of every Saturday. In addition to juggling sports and part-time work, he also had year-round responsibilities for UND’s Upward Bound program, which he joined as a junior.

Upward Bound is a federally funded program that helps financially disadvantaged students earn some cash through monthly assignments, improve standardized test scores and enroll in college prep courses that help them become eligible for admission.

His work paid off. Despite the additional assignments and activities, his high school GPA is currently 3.25, up from 3.0 his freshmen year. Because of the accelerated workload he took through Upward Bound, he also feels more comfortable with the idea of college, he said.

Kim Bailey, his school counselor, said he’s done a good job taking advantage of the resources available to him. The steps he’s taken are examples of what she advises students to do, she said.

District students get a head start on career planning as early as sixth grade. Students start a “career portfolio” that takes an inventory of their interests, tracks their assessment scores and other information to help determine their career path after high school, said Eric Ripley, district director of Career and Technical Education.

Central and Red River High School counselors also work very closely with students throughout their high school career, they said. Family meetings, individual sessions and what Red River counselor Geoff Gaukler calls an annual “review and preview” help students in both high schools figure out what their future plans are and what they need to work on, he said.

School or sports

The hardest decision Kelly had to make about college occurred after his first attempt taking the ACT, which earned him a composite score of 16.

That’s two points lower than UND’s requirements, which have changed this fall because the university wants to focus more on the quality and not the quantity of students, spokesman Peter Johnson has said. The most notable change this fall is that if students score a 21 or higher on the ACT, they must have a minimum 2.50 GPA.

When Kelly considered retaking the test, he realized it fell on the same day as a cross-country meet in Valley City that could place him on the state team, he said.

Kelly had been heavily involved with cross-country and other sports since his freshman year, but he’d noticeably improved in cross-country and his coach believed he had a good shot at being on the state team, he said.

He finished the ACT at about 11:30 a.m., but the boys started running at noon. The decision was worth it, though — he received a composite score of 19 on his ACT, enough to gain acceptance to UND, he said.

His score falls a little bit lower than the average composite score for North Dakota and Minnesota students, which is 20.5 and 23, respectively, according to 2013 ACT data.

“I wasn’t exactly happy that I’d given up my state cross-country spot, but if I wouldn’t have given it up, I wouldn’t have gotten a 19,” he said.

Military background

Kelly, who is the last child in his family to graduate high school, lives with his parents on Grand Forks Air Force Base.

His mother, a guest services manager on the base, said she’s very proud of her son, for whom the college acceptance means more than an academic future and job. He set the goal in memory of his late grandfather, Lonnie Wilkerson, who had a long career in the Air Force.

“That was one of his driving forces — to make him proud, to honor his name by doing a great job in school and making all of these smart choices in his life,” she said.

The rest of his family, including his grandfather, were enlisted members but never went to college so they could advance to an officer’s ranking. His father, Joe, retired from the Air Force as a technical sergeant several years ago and now works for Sanford Health.

UND appealed to Kelly because of its Air Force and Army ROTC programs and its reputation for the aviation and aerospace programs. He plans to major in aerospace engineering and join the Air Force ROTC, he said.

For now, he’s waiting to hear about housing and will start filling out financial aid documents in January. He’s already applied for about five or six scholarships, which high school counselors said they encourage.

Overall, he’s proud of what he’s accomplished so far, he said.

“I’m proud of myself, but I know there’s improvement to be done,” he said.

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