Lakeland Collegiate set strong foundation for Ivy League grad

Posted on by Polk Newsroom

For Kaitlyn Kelley, the small, community-centric setting that she felt at Polk State Lakeland Collegiate High School helped direct her transition to the Ivy League and now at one of the most prestigious law schools in the country.

Kelley, 22, is currently enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School – the No. 3 law school in the country for 2023-24, according to U.S. News. After beginning her high school career at George Jenkins High School, friends at Collegiate helped convince Kelley to enroll.

“I liked the idea of receiving a higher education and a high school diploma at the same time,” Kelley recalled. “The fact that it was free was a big plus. Collegiate allowed me to meet others with new perspectives, which greatly prepared me for Dartmouth and the real world.”

Dartmouth College, an Ivy League institution in New Hampshire, is where Kelley would head after graduating as the valedictorian at Collegiate in 2018 with a splendid 4.739 grade-point average. The class’s salutatorian Harrison Chen would also attend an Ivy League school, choosing the University of Pennsylvania.

“As only a high school student, it was incredible being able to interact with professors who conducted research and were established in their field,” Kelley said. “Becoming involved with the clubs was also a highlight of the Collegiate experience.”

During her time at Collegiate, Kelley was part of the Student Government Association (SGA) for the Polk State College Lakeland Campus and served as vice president of SGA for Collegiate, vice president and founding officer of Student United Way, secretary for Science National Honors Society, and as a member of National Honor Society and Youth in Government.

She left with her high school diploma and Associate in Arts degree (graduating in the Honors Program). Kelley was impacted by several faculty members, including Jess Jones, Amanda Jones, Ward Hurst, and Colleen Caldecutt, among others.

“My chemistry professors, Jess and Amanda Jones, were great mentors and people I looked up to,” Kelley said. “Being able to talk to them about my goals and aspirations was really helpful as I navigated the college application process. Mr. Hurst taught my first-ever class at Collegiate and helped me with my transition to the school. Professor Caldecutt’s teaching method was challenging, but it better prepared me for Dartmouth and for law school.”

Initially a premedical student at Dartmouth, Kelley said having taken organic chemistry courses at Polk State helped make rigorous STEM courses less challenging.

“Kaitlyn was great to have in class,” Professor Jess Jones said. “She was very friendly and outgoing, but also very witty.  Our senses of humor aligned very well. She was driven to excel in class but was also very intellectually curious. She wanted to know why and how something happened.”

During her first summer away from home, Kelley interned with Kachin Women’s Association in Thailand. The organization provides support for Kachin communities in Myanmar and raises awareness for the hardship Kachin refugees face in Thailand.

While in Thailand, Kelley was there to help from a health perspective. However, she decided that she could make a bigger difference by practicing law.

“I still wanted to help people, but in a different way,” she recalled. “When I got home, I decided to change my major.”

Kelley graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and philosophy. During the summer, she worked for her first law firm – Davis Polk & Wardwell in Manhattan – as a legal litigation assistant.

“All of us who have known Kaitlyn are exceptionally proud of her and what she has accomplished,” Jones added. “I never doubted her abilities, as she had the personality and acumen to accomplish any goal she put her mind towards. Seeing where she has gone and what she has accomplished should show every one of our students that there is no limit to where you can go from Polk State College.”

Accepted into both Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School, Kelley chose to attend law school at the University of Chicago. Like Polk State and Dartmouth, it offered a small, intimate setting where students can work more closely with their professors.

“Everyone had a strong sense of community at Dartmouth,” Kelley added. “(At Chicago), all the professors seem eager to teach. They really are here for the students.”

Kelley is set to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School in 2026 with her Juris Doctor degree. She isn’t sure what discipline of law she wants to practice but credits her mother and father, Melanie and Brian Kelley, and brother, Jordan Kelley, for supporting her along the way. Kelley added that Polk State Lakeland Collegiate High School built a strong foundation for her to excel in her college career.

“I’m a big fan of the Polk State collegiate system,” she added. “You’re exposed to so many people with a lot of different interests and professors with a lot of different skills. Collegiate is for people who want to be challenged. It’s a great space to grow academically and as a person.”

Polk State Lakeland Collegiate High School, Polk State Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School, and Polk State Lakeland Gateway to College Collegiate High School are accepting applications for the 2024-2025 Academic Year. Those who are interested should visit for more information and applications.

Kelley said she made a number of meaningful connections during her time at Polk State. She also offered advice for students.

“Some of my best friends are people I met at Collegiate,” Kelley noted. “I’d take advantage of the class sizes and opportunity to get to know your professors. Having an AA at 17 or 18 will make you stand out no matter what you want to do or be.”