When Kailee LeBel walked into her first advanced placement class at Dawson County High School, she thought it was going to be a breeze.
She always had the highest grades in her classes. How hard could AP World History be?
“A lot of things come naturally to me…reading comprehension, writing,” LeBel said. “Those are two things that I never had to work exceptionally hard on. I struggle with math and science though and I have to work really hard in those subjects. It’s something I do unintentionally. I’m naturally this perfectionist that won’t turn something in unless I know it’s the best that I can do.”
It was after failing that first quiz in Mrs. Honea’s class in AP World History that LeBel realized she was going to have to work hard to accomplish her dream of going to college at Columbia University in New York City. Now, LeBel will accomplish her dream when she moves to the Big Apple on Wednesday, Aug. 25 to attend Columbia.
During the application process, LeBel thought that she might want to go to New York University instead of Columbia, but once she was accepted by Columbia and learned more about the university, she said she found Columbia to be more “her speed.”
“I went to New York this summer just to check out the campus because I had never seen it,” LeBel said. “The neighborhood is subdued by New York standards. It gives you that nice slice of life. When you’re standing on campus, you don’t even realize you’re in the middle of New York City. Then in 20 minutes, you’re in the middle of all the action.”
LeBel said she credits her academic success to hard work and an intense level of competitiveness within her. However, she said she never let the competition become external towards others, just internally throughout herself. She added that she wants to tone her competitive drive down even more before college classes start for her own mental health.
“This last semester, I took six AP classes in one semester,” LeBel said. “I did not see my friends at all. My life was just school and it was my last semester of high school. I was doing it just to be able to get into a school like Columbia but I don’t want to live the rest of my life like that.”
“I want to allow myself to explore other interests that might not be academic. I think that’s a sign of maturity to not let yourself be competitive in all aspects of your life. I just don’t want to wear myself out. If I live my life in college like that, I’ll drop out in the first week.”
Like any other college freshman, LeBel said her biggest worries are being away from her family, the added difficulty of classes and the stress of making all new friends. The pressure of having to pick a major is one far away from her, as Columbia does not make its students declare a major until the end of their sophomore year.
“Columbia has their own core curriculum so it’s a good way to dive into some interests you did not have an opportunity to while in high school,” LeBel said. “I’ve talked to so many upperclassmen that have said ‘I went in thinking I was going to do political science and I ended up doing statistics.”
If asked to declare right now, LeBel said she would pick human rights law, citing current situations in Russia, Afghanistan and Belarus as driving forces pulling her in that direction.
“I wanted to be an American politician, but I realized I like looking at the world from more of an international landscape,” LeBel said. “I feel like there’s a lot in international courts. I feel like the U.N. could do more than it is. It would be really cool to be a human rights lawyer for the U.N. I just want to make this entire geographical landscape a better place for everyone.”
If LeBel goes through with law school to become a lawyer, she will join a job field that had only 37.4 percent women working in 2020. LeBel added that she gets a lot of pride from being an outspoken woman from the South, attending an Ivy League school in pursuit of a law degree.
“I don’t want to make generalizations about everyone, but when you’re a girl, you should be quiet and do as you’re told,” LeBel said. “And I’ve never been like that. My parents have always told me to be me no matter what. I’m not going to buy into being a meek woman. Hopefully, I’m inspiring younger girls to take initiative to be themselves.”
As LeBel continues her academic journey, she said she still finds herself thinking about back in elementary school, when her teachers would show off her work to the class. She thought nothing of it back then, but as she will get ready to start her next journey, she is confident that she has accomplished the dreams of that little girl.
“There’s definitely been a lot of moments since I got in that I’ve been pinching myself,” LeBel said. “It is kind of that moment where I feel like I did this for myself. I’m excited, scared and a million other things at once.”