LINCOLN — Kailee Pedersen began reading at age 2. By 4 she was journaling, and at age 12 she had written an award-winning one-act play, later performed in St. Louis.
At the age of 13, as an eighth- grader, she submitted her literary portfolio to the Davidson Institute for Talent Development. She didn't win a scholarship — few do — but in the next four years, Kailee went on to collect dozens of national writing awards and scholarships. Last year, her senior year at Lincoln East, she tried again.
Saturday in Washington, D.C., Pedersen, 17, will be presented a $25,000 Davidson Fellows Scholarship, as will 19 other young people who have each completed a significant piece of work to benefit society. The winning graduate-level projects fall into one of these categories: science, technology, mathematics, literature, music, philosophy and “outside the box.”
To qualify, the work must be recognized as an outstanding accomplishment by experts in the field: a new idea with high impact or unique applications of existing knowledge.
“I think of literature as one of the biggest channels for humanity to express itself,” Pedersen said. “Some people like to make music, and some people like to draw and paint. For me, that's writing.”
Through nearly 60 pages of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, Pedersen's submission, “The Transliteration of Flesh,” examines the human experience through themes such as sexism and racism. Pedersen said her work, which explores the depths of the human psyche, relies on more than an interest in the arts.
“There is a lot of intertwining in literature and science-related fields,” she said. “For me, writing characters that are different from myself ties into my fascination with psychology. As I write, I have to think 'OK, how do my characters tick? What makes them feel this way?' ”
Kailee's father, Jon Pedersen, describes his daughter — who speaks six languages, plays three instruments and is in her freshman year at Columbia University in New York City — as a renaissance woman.
“She's not just this kid who sits behind closed doors all day,” Jon Pedersen said. “Kailee's driven, but very much passionate about human beings as well. I'm biased, but she's one of the kindest, most compassionate individuals I've ever met.”
Jon Pedersen said he and his wife, Conni Pedersen, recognized their daughter's potential at a young age and worked with schools in Nebraska and Oklahoma, where the family lived for a time, to encourage her passions.
“We had two great school districts to work with,” Jon Pedersen said. “They really bent over backward to make sure she was challenged.”
But parents and teachers alike agree that Kailee Pedersen's success is self-motivated. Bill Dimon, Lincoln East High School's English department chairman and one of Kailee Pedersen's nominators, said throughout the submission process last year he was mostly available to encourage her ideas.
“(She is) extremely motivated, a true talent,” he said. “She will not allow herself to be bound by anything. I was there to kind of ground her in that and what she's trying to say and accomplish.”
Dimon said Pedersen's ability to communicate through a narrative is remarkable.
“What's amazing about her writing is that she can unify both a narrative and analytical aspect of a piece,” he said. “She is able to analyze historical text and perspective and bring it into a narrative. Ultimately, for any writer, that is the end game.”
Pedersen, who is studying English and psychology at Columbia, said she plans on saving the scholarship for graduate school. She said she hopes to one day publish a book or collection of her work. But for now she is enjoying studying classic literature in an entirely foreign city.
“I really wanted to go to a school that had a really rigorous educational edge, but also something urban and metropolitan,” Pedersen said of her university. “It's crazy and amazing.”