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ODA grad bound for Ivy League

Taylor Emmons Scholarship recipient headed to Harvard after ODA career.

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Kaylen Rivers, a senior at the Out-of-Door Academy in Lakewood Ranch, had no intention of going to Harvard University. 

She could apply to whatever schools she wanted, but her mother, Kymberli Rivers, said she had to apply to Harvard because she wanted to see if her daughter would be accepted.

Kaylen Rivers had zero belief she would be accepted while her mom listened to Lisa Clay, Kaylen Rivers’ guidance clerk, who said they should consider Harvard a valid option. 

“I started kind of championing Harvard for her and talking about the type of environment it is,” Kymberli Rivers said.

“You were annoying,” Kaylen Rivers said to her mom. 

“Yes, championing is the word you want to use there,” Kymberli Rivers said to her daughter. “I was cheerleading and encouraging passionately.”

Still, Kaylen Rivers couldn’t believe she could be accepted to one of the most prestigious universities. 

“I didn’t acknowledge Harvard as my dream school for a while because I just didn’t want to love it and enjoy it and just to get my heart shattered if I got rejected,” Kaylen Rivers said. 

After being deferred during the early decision period in the fall, Kaylen Rivers completely gave up on the idea of going to Harvard.

“I was like, ‘OK, that means I’m not in,’” Kaylen Rivers said. “I threw Harvard out the window.”

Kaylen Rivers said she put all her energy into Rice University, her top choice after Harvard. 

Then she received notification from Harvard that she was accepted. 

“I didn’t even know how to react,” she said. “I just screamed for 5 minutes. It was an absolutely insane time. Completely Earth shattering.”

The Rivers are looking forward to closing the high school chapter of Kaylen Rivers’ life and celebrating her accomplishments during graduation June 5. 

“I’m looking forward to this sense of completion with the notion that it’s this springboard to the next thing,” Kymberli Rivers said. “It’s a beautiful closing and at the same time, opening.”

Kaylen Rivers, a senior at the Out-of-Door Academy, can't wait to be at Harvard University to study molecular and cellular biology. Courtesy photo.
Kaylen Rivers, a senior at the Out-of-Door Academy, can't wait to be at Harvard University to study molecular and cellular biology. Courtesy photo.

Kaylen Rivers was in seventh grade when her family started planning where she was going to go to high school. They were considering Riverview High School for its International Baccalaureate program, along with ODA. 

Then Kaylen Rivers received the Taylor Emmons Scholarship, which provides opportunities for socio-economically diverse students to attend ODA. Only one student is chosen per year to receive the scholarship.

“I understand Riverview is a great school, but ODA is where I wanted to be,” Kaylen Rivers said. “I love the community here. I love all the opportunities I got here. I have no idea where I would be without the Emmons Scholarship program and ODA in general.”

Because the Taylor Emmons Scholarship is so competitive, the Rivers felt they needed to prove why Kaylen Rivers was the recipient.

“At the moment of getting the Taylor Emmons Scholarship, I felt how huge that was because public school is free and ODA is very much not free,” Kymberli Rivers said. “I think that felt so gigantic. I think I felt a little pressure for her to prove herself, but they made it clear that wasn’t the expectation and she was here because she earned it.”

Kymberli Rivers said her daughter has always been confident, self assured and always steps ahead. 

“She thought it was her personal responsibility to inform the world of everything that she knows,” Kymberli Rivers said. 

When Kaylen Rivers was in fourth grade, her teacher encouraged her to apply for the gifted program so she could be around like-minded individuals.

“Kaylen had other opinions,” Kymberli Rivers said. “She purposely failed the tests for gifted because she had heard the fifth grade gifted teachers were mean. She said to me coming out [of the test], ‘Have you heard of Mahatma Gandhi? I am peacefully resisting you.’”

Although she failed the test to be in the gifted program, her teacher pushed for her to be in the program anyway and she has been a part of accelerated learning programs since.

Rivers said being able to attend ODA opened a world of opportunities for her. 

“It’s just a blank slate,” Rivers said. “You find doors that open for you. Especially at ODA, you don’t have to seek out opportunities, they just kind of find you and all you have to do is take them.”

Kaylen Rivers, a senior at The Out-of-Door Academy, looks forward to ending her high school career and starting a new chapter in her life at Harvard University.
Kaylen Rivers, a senior at The Out-of-Door Academy, looks forward to ending her high school career and starting a new chapter in her life at Harvard University.

When Kaylen Rivers was a freshman, she noticed the school didn’t have a Technology Student Association chapter. She had participated in TSA since she was a sixth grader at Brookside Middle School.

Kaylen Rivers recalled going to nationals her freshman year to compete in the Storybook category with ODA senior Reece Whatmore. They had placed second in the state for their book that could be used by people with different disabilities.

When they competed in nationals, they didn’t advance in the competition, so they decided to enter into a Stokes Educational Services competition where they were tasked with creating a robot that could dance, teach a lesson or tell a story. 

The duo only had 24 hours to create and program their robot, which would tell a story using historical U.S. facts about that year. It would then dance.

“I remember we programmed for 17 hours straight because we joined the competition late, and it was due the next day,” Kaylen Rivers said. “I remember staying up all night learning how to code, finding all the historical facts, trial and error and getting all of it to finally work within 15 minutes of it being due.”

To their surprise, Rivers and Whatmore won the competition, in which anyone at nationals could participate. 

“It was a whole great experience because we go there expecting to win one thing, completely lose, get blown out of the water and then being able to adjust and win something else,” Kaylen Rivers said. “That was pretty amazing to me.

“Getting to ODA, it seemed like this gigantic wall that seemed unreachable,” Kaylen Rivers said. “Having the support of my friends, my teachers and my mom helped me get through it. … I’m proud of myself for actually realizing my worth.”