Birmingham student accepts full ride to Harvard

A warning to anyone planning to be in the audience for the Ramsay IB High School graduation on June 2: you’re in for a treat when it comes to the valedictorian’s speech. Rest assured that Kylan Benson knows a thing or two about public speaking. He honed his debating skills from when he was in seventh grade until his senior year, when he served as co-captain of Ramsay’s Speak First Debating Team.

Just two weeks ago, Kylan found out he was number one in his class. He and two other students have been “neck and neck” in a “race three,” he says, since their freshman year. For most of that time, he says, he was in third place — so he didn’t expect to be picked as valedictorian. “No matter how it ends, it ends,” he told himself. “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. But we’re all such good friends. To have other high performing people like that, not competitively but just to push each other, it’s been a great experience.

Kylan, a Birmingham native who attended Birmingham City Schools throughout primary, middle and high school, ended up with a 4.5 grade point average. He did a 32 on his ACT. And he was accepted to 18 colleges that awarded him more than $3 million in scholarships.

At a press conference in Ramsay this week, Kylan announced he would be attending Harvard University on a full scholarship this fall.

Although success always came naturally to him — “I like to be the best at what I do,” he says — he had no intention of applying to Ivy League colleges. Former Ramsay students who chose Ivy League schools convinced him to do so. “You never know what’s for you until you try,” he says, “so I chose to visit those schools and shake them up fairly.”

He ended up being accepted by four of them.

Kylan Benson, far left, says he can always count on the love and support of his family, including his mother, Koala Benson, older brother, Keyon Benson, and younger brother, Kamari Benson. (Photo courtesy of Kylan Benson)

The College Choice Foundationa Birmingham non-profit organization that helps students find schools that meet their financial needs, was also a big help in her college search – particularly because it allowed her to visit “many , many, many universities,” he says.

“Being able to visit so many schools let me know if school would be the right fit for me,” he says. “Once you arrive on campus, you can feel it. You can see how the students interact with each other. You cannot get this just by researching schools online.

He narrowed his choices to Harvard and Georgetown – which he visited twice. The first time, he says, he immediately felt comfortable at Harvard, but not so much at Georgetown. Then he returned when he was invited to visit other admitted students. This time he fell in love with Georgetown; meanwhile, on his second visit to Harvard, he still felt happy there.

“It was a very difficult decision because I really liked both schools,” he says.

But the Harvard community won him over. “The students were all so nice and welcoming, and everyone I met was people I could see myself with – high achievers with big goals. Also just academic reputation, prestige, history. I couldn’t go wrong with either school, but Harvard was the place for me. It was my form.

At Harvard, he plans to major in government with a concentration in international relations. “I’ve always been interested in government, history, civil service, national politics, all that sort of thing,” he says. “From the debate, you get to know about these topics and issues in the world. It makes me want to be a world leader.

Her mentor at the College Choice Foundation, Carl Thomas, spent “hour after hour” helping her develop her essay for the Common Application. The essay focused on his four years working with the YMCA Youth in Government club in Ramsay, which he remembers as “the first thing that really took me out of my comfort zone”. In his senior year, he served as club president.

Kylan saw the essay as a chance to stand out from the crowd by telling his story. “I talked about my experience with young people in government,” he says. “I really tried to show my passion for service, my passion for leadership. I know what I want to do and I know college will help me do it.

He had to write an additional essay with his Harvard application, and in it he says he “basically wrote about how I made different sacrifices for my education.” (Spoiler alert: Parts of his essay may end up in his opening speech.)

Kylan Benson

“My mother and my grandmother over the years have given me so much love, support and encouragement,” said Kylan Benson, pictured with his mother, Koala Benson. (Photo courtesy of Kylan Benson)

He credits his family, especially his mother and grandmother, for his success in school. He is also very close to one of his aunts, who was “the last person in my family to graduate from college, almost 50 years ago,” he says. “So she gives me a lot of knowledge and that wisdom that you need for the next level.”

His mother couldn’t be more proud of her son. “I think she’s more excited than me, honestly,” he laughs. “I love seeing the love and support from my family, which I can always count on.”

His friends on the debate team and fellow IB classmates also provided invaluable encouragement. “We’re one big family, and we’re all going through the college process together, so we’ve all been there — the ups and downs, the changing decisions about schools — so having them backing me up has meant the world.”

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