Kongkousonh Reaches for the STARS - Chosen for Prestigious College Program

Autumn Kongkousonh posed in the midst of Chicago skyscrapers on her all-expenses paid trip to
learn about how to get into a prestigious college at UChicago in early May.
Photo submitted by Autumn Kongkousonh


“I was honored to be chosen for the inaugural program and I hope more students from Sherrard High School will be able to take advantage of this program in the future!”

Sherrard junior, Autumn Kongkousonh, was recently chosen out of 300 applicants for a rare opportunity to travel to Chicago to learn the intricacies of how to get into a prestigious university under a program titled, The Small Town and Rural Students (STARS) College Network Fly-in at UChicago.

Only 31 attendees from 13 states were accepted.

English teacher, Candace Gagliardo recommended she apply, “I can't think of another student who will get more out of this experience or represent Sherrard as well as Autumn.”

The University of Chicago’s, Marjorie Betley, Executive Director of the STARS College Network, said Autumn was chosen based on her “heartfelt and authentic” essay, “which stood out in a large pool of more than 300 students who applied.”

She explained the program, “Autumn will have the chance to learn all about the ins and outs of the college application process, and how to apply for financial aid and scholarships. This is information we want every student to have as early as possible in their high school careers, so not only will Autumn have a great time exploring UChicago and the city of Chicago, but she’ll also be acting as an ambassador in bringing everything she learns back to the Sherrard community!”

She said the program was fully funded by a generous donation from Trott Family Philanthropies. Betley is also Trott Director of the Emerging Rural Leaders Program, and Senior Associate Director of Admissions at The University of Chicago.

Konkousonh left on May 14 and returned on the 16th, and has already been interviewed by a reporter with international news source, Scripps News, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia.

Autumn said, “Overall, it was an amazing experience. I met 30 new friends who were all from diverse backgrounds but shared the same goal: higher education. Everyone was super kind and we all got along really well. It was so interesting to hear everyone’s different life experiences and their rural/small town experience.”

She explained what the time entailed after arriving by plane, “We got a very nice shuttle bus that picked us up at O’Hare and dropped us off at our hotel, The Study. We met the other students who had arrived earlier that day and then we went to dinner with some current students of UChicago at Woodlawn Dining Hall. After that, we had a good old UChicago scavenger hunt. They’re known for those!”

She said the next day they had breakfast at Ida Noyes Hall and listened to admissions counselors from UChicago and Brown University talk about what sets their colleges apart, followed by a tour of the campus at UChicago."

31 Students
Sherrard junior Autumn Kongkousonh is in the middle of the group of 31 students chosen to attend
UChicago's STARS College Network Fly-in in Chicago.
Photo submitted by Autumn Kongkousonh

Then, the 31 attendees had a mock class with a professor of neurobiology, “We learned about Nuero-ethics. We discussed how physical brain matter can alter someone’s perceptions, and whether or not criminals with tumors or brain cancer that is undetected should be punished or not for crimes that they may not have committed if their brain was healthy. That was a super interesting mock class and it really inspired me to consider applying to UChicago because of how discussion based the class was.”

“After that, we had a student panel talk about their experience at UChicago and we had lunch with those students. It was cool to see what type of people get into a college so prestigious.”

She said later that day they did a case study acting as admissions counselors deciding who to accept and decline,  “It was really interesting to collaborate with other students as well as the admissions counselors from Brown and UChicago to see what type of student is actually accepted into prestigious colleges. It helped me feel more confident in my ability to apply and get in. We also spoke to the Dean of Admissions at UChicago. He went to Yale and was super inspiring.”

They then met with a counselor to learn about financial aid options.

“It’s really important to learn how to afford college and I was happy to be taught by a school that has tuition reaching $90,000!”

The group also had fun. “We went on an Architectural Boat Tour in downtown Chicago on the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. It was so cool to learn about the history of Chicago and its iconic skyscrapers. After that, we had to have deep dish pizza since we were in Chicago, so we went to Giordanos!

We then had our closing remarks with the admissions counselors and we all went back down to our meeting place and us students talked for hours! In the morning, we had breakfast at The Study and left for home!”

“To be honest, what made this trip super sweet was that it was absolutely free! From the minute I stepped foot onto my plane departing for Chicago, I didn’t have to pay a dime! It was amazing! Although it was a quick trip, I gained so much information about the college search process, the admissions process, and the UChicago experience. The University of Chicago and The STARS College Network are offering such a unique experience to rural students. It’s amazing that these prestigious colleges are taking notice of the incredible small town kids in America!”

Konkousonh’s mom, Patricia Konkousonh said, “As a mother navigating the uncharted waters of college admissions and scholarship opportunities for the first time, I'm just so thankful for the STARS program, University of Chicago and Brown University for this exciting experience... I'm appreciative that Mrs. Gagliardo encouraged Autumn to apply for this unique program. ”

Sherrard High School’s Academic/Counseling Office has Julie Drish to help parents and students navigate the financial piece of the college puzzle. She can be reached with questions by email at drishju@sherrard.us,  and by phone at (309) 593-2175 Ext 1011.


Autumn's essay that earned her the spot:

      In less than two years, I will choose which path I take into the adult world. I aim to be the first person in my family to earn a college degree. I'm excited to meet new people, experience new things, and expand my knowledge. My current interests include taking challenging courses to better prepare me for college, playing volleyball and basketball, and being involved in many clubs, including FCA, FCCLA, SCEC, and the National Honor Society. I also play the piano and am active in Ruah, my church's youth group. It's a busy schedule that has helped me to become organized and responsible.
      One goal of mine in college is to make friends who share similar interests, and with whom I can form study groups. Often, I have to set myself aside from students at my high school, as they aren't as dedicated to their studies as I am. Meeting students that share similar goals and with similar maturity levels will be great. My hometown has a population of 900, so being thrown into a school with 30,000 plus, will give me the perfect opportunity to meet new people who are diverse and interesting.
      I hope to experience new and exciting things with the friends I meet at college. I hope to get out of my comfort zone and try unusual things. Currently, I spend hours upon hours on my school work. In college, I hope to find a better balance between academics and my social life. I want to attend football games, try new restaurants, and maybe even try a few adrenaline rush activities. I hope to limit stress by having a little bit of fun, something I have been struggling with throughout my high school years.
      Lastly, I want to expand my knowledge. I am passionate about all fields of science and scientific study. I am aiming to attend an R1 research university and hopefully find my way into a competitive forensic science program. Eventually, I want to become a medical examiner. With a degree in forensic science, I can become a crime scene investigator which is equally as exciting. Attending an R1 research university would allow me to study my favorite subject at the highest level, and I am so excited to learn everything I can about the subject that I love.
      Deciding which college or university to attend is exciting in itself. So many colleges and universities to explore, visit, and research. Finding the perfect fit is essential to my success, both academically and financially. I am driven, focused, and am confident I will find the perfect college or university for me. I am so ready to dive in and learn everything I can and live my life to my fullest potential. Having a clear goal is key in taking the proper steps to be successful. The possibilities are innumerable. With clear goals, hard work, and determination, I will meet any goal I set for myself.