Michelle Odonkor
Michelle Odonkor
As a hurdler on the track team at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Michelle Odonkor said she learned the value of patience, perseverance and determination.

"I loved it. It was definitely a challenge. You're constantly landing on your shins, and knocking your knees and ankles," she said, adding that another hazard is hitting your knee or foot on the hurdle, so a runner has to work on technique and form, and the proper use of power and speed. "It definitely taught me to keep going, and brush it off," she said of overcoming the setbacks in hurdling.

Odonkor, a member of Good Counsel's class of 2014, is on stride for college. A finalist in both the National Merit and National Achievement Scholarship Programs, she applied for and was accepted into all the Ivy League schools. This fall, she will attend Harvard, where she plans to major in human developmental and regenerative biology, on a pre-med track.

"It (Harvard) just seemed like the best fit for me. It had exactly what I wanted to study," she said.

Odonkor, 17, is a Laurel resident. Her family has roots in the West African nation of Ghana. Both her parents are medical doctors, and she has two younger sisters.

She dreams of being a doctor, perhaps serving in pediatric emergency room medicine, because she likes working with kids and being "in the moment," making a quick response to a challenging situation.

"Medicine would be perfect for me. It's a kind of service," said Odonkor. "I'll be able to help other people and show compassion by healing and saving lives."

Her parents, she said, are both humble, down-to-earth people, and she looks to them as role models. Her father, Dr. Patrick Odonkor, is an anesthesiologist, who has the high-pressure responsibility of being in charge of a patient's consciousness.

"He told me that every time he goes into surgery, he says a prayer first. I'd like to do that. Saying a prayer not only for the person, but for the work you're about to do, is important," the Good Counsel senior said.

Her mother, Dr. Wolali Odonkor, is an endocrinologist. "My mom is really, really good at communication.... She listens, and people know she cares," Michelle Odonkor said.

At Good Counsel, she participated in the rigorous International Baccalaureate Program, where her classes included IB math and IB biology. "It allowed me to be well rounded and focus on science and math," she said, adding that the program emphasizes critical thinking. Odonkor's extended essay for the IB program dealt with how cultures around the world perceive beauty differently.

Odonkor participated in debate for four years at Good Counsel, which she said helped her communications skills and sharpened her problem solving abilities. The debate topics over the years included cyber-bullying, nuclear proliferation and Obamacare.

A member of the Presbyterian Tabernacle Church in Laurel, Odonkor said she appreciates the Catholic identity of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School. "The basic beliefs and ethics are all things I believe in," she said. "...Being able to have Masses and freely talk about God has helped me grow confident in my faith."

The student added, "I realize the gifts I've been given are not of myself." Odonkor said she offers prayers of thanksgiving to God, and also seeks his help. "I find myself throughout the day, saying little prayers," she said.

Odonkor participated in a service trip to Camden, N.J., in the summer after her sophomore year, and she worked at a child development center, where she experienced the challenges that children face as they are growing up in poverty and are exposed to a violent culture.

In spring break during her junior year, she went on a service trip to Haiti, where she said she worked at an orphanage, and was inspired to see the children's joyful spirit, despite having so little, and "to see their faith, how they embraced it and how they lived it."

Both experiences, she said, gave her a new perspective on life, and taught her how she can make a difference. "It's those little drops of water that make a mighty ocean. That definitely inspired me to go into service, and do whatever I can to help out... Realizing how blessed I am and how God has helped me, (and then) to realize I have so much, and I have to give back."

Explaining her interest in studying regenerative biology, Odonkor said that kind of research could ultimately lead to cures for diseases like cancer.

She agrees with the Catholic Church's ethical opposition to embryonic stem cell research, and said she is interested in adult stem cell research. "It may take more work, but you're not destroying life," she said.

As the scholar and hurdler prepares to graduate from Good Counsel and further her education at Harvard, she said her high school "prepared me academically, spiritually and emotionally" for the start of her next race.