Kelly Hyles, an aspiring neurosurgeon, tells PEOPLE hard work, a dedicated mother and resilience are the keys to her success
Credit: Courtesy Kelly Hyles

As Kelly Hyles and her mother leaned over a computer in their modest Queens living room to check what colleges the senior got into, joy mixed with shock overwhelmed them.

Harvard, Yale, Princeton? Yes. Dartmouth, Cornell, Brown, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania? Also yes. Eight emphatic acceptances from every single Ivy League school.

“By the first one I was in tears of joy, I am screaming and shouting, ‘Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus,’ ” Kelly’s mother, Anetta Hyles, a nurse’s aide who has worked two jobs while raising her daughter as a single mom, tells PEOPLE.

Says Kelly: “I was really happy. I’m still in disbelief. I am so grateful.”

Kelly, who commutes an hour and a half every day to the prestigious High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College of New York, is the second student in the New York City area this year to get into all eight Ivy League schools. Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna at Elmont Memorial High School on Long Island also beat the incredibly long odds of attaining such an accomplishment.

For now, the 17-year-old is leaning toward Harvard, which has been a “dream school” for the aspiring neurosurgeon.

Kelly’s academics are stellar. She attained a grade point average of 99.63 while taking college-level classes at her competitive high school, where she is valedictorian of her class.

“It took incredible consistency and determination to earn a nearly perfect grade on every exam, project, and homework assignment in every marking period in every semester over four years,” says her guidance counselor, Wade Klein. He notes that about half the school has an “A” average.

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Kelly also takes part in a highly competitive biomedical research program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Each day she leaves school for the lab to study the effects of a gene on diabetes at the Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism Institute.

Kelly stands out for her “powerful intellect” and “strong work ethic,” says Adolfo Garcia-Ocana, Ph.D, a professor of medicine and head of the lab where Kelly works. “Kelly’s performance has been outstanding,” he writes in an email.

Kelly’s strong work ethic comes from her mother. The pair are Guyanese immigrants, who came to America for better opportunities in 2009 when Kelly was 11.

Anetta raised her daughter as a single mom juggling a grueling schedule: She works an overnight shift as a nurse’s aide at a nursing home until 7 a.m., then travels to her second job as a home health aide, which begins at 8.

Meanwhile, early each weekday morning, Kelly wakes up alone in their Queens apartment and gets ready for school. She then takes a combination of buses and subways for the hour-and-a-half journey to her high school at the other side of the city, in Harlem.

“She is my rock; she’s always been there for me,” says Kelly of her mother, who frequently checks in on Kelly during her commute and through the day.

In all, Kelly got accepted to 21 schools, including top-ranked Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins and New York University. (She is wait-listed at Stanford.)

“In Guyana, Kelly always did well,” says Anetta. “She was always on top of her class. When she got here she realized the opportunity. She came and saw other children not taking the opportunity and she did.”

And when things got tough, such as with Advanced Placement chemistry and imperfect grades, Kelly realized she needed tutoring.

“The biggest part of my achievement is that I am only human and I will make mistakes,” she says.

“I realized no one is perfect and you are gonna have obstacles and you have to stay resilient,” she continues. “It’s not whether or not you fall, it’s whether or not you get up and continue trying.”