Three hours and four digits do not define her. That’s what LuAnn Bonilla wrote in a financial aid appeal when a low SAT score excluded her from the scholarships she needed to attend Illinois State.

The bilingual student athlete from Niles carried a 3.7 GPA, was active in Amnesty International, served on her high school’s Principal Leadership Team, and was voted vice president of the Black Student Union. She also volunteered at the library and local food shelter, not to build a resume, but because she thought it was the right thing to do.

Knowing one exam didn’t define her was her biggest life lesson so far, she said. Retaking the exam was expensive, and she didn’t have the money, but she also wasn’t going to let an SAT score kick her out of her dream school. She studied for the exam through YouTube videos and practice tests, took it again, and saw her score dramatically shoot up.

Bonilla was on the Maine East High School’s softball team and as a junior, watched three of the four seniors enroll at ISU. When she told her high school counselors she wanted to major in elementary education, they pointed her in the same direction.

“Every single one mentioned ISU,” she said.

Last August she visited campus, helping a friend during move-in day.

“As I stepped foot on campus, it felt like home,” she said. “I wanted to go to ISU that day.”

But her family wasn’t supportive. Her older brother went to a community college, and they thought that’s where she should go too. But she persisted. After taking an ISU campus tour alone, she spent months applying for scholarships, and then appealed to the Financial Aid Office and  Admissions.

“I really, really wanted to go to ISU,” she said.

Her parents, who are from Vietnam and Ecuador, encouraged her to major in computer science rather than education because they were concerned about low teacher salaries, but she’s wanted to be a teacher since eighth grade.

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Spring was a difficult time. Because of coronavirus (COVID-19), her high school graduation ceremony was cancelled. On the day she picked up her diploma, she put on a mask, entered her school through a side door, and followed the masking tape marks on the floor. A woman she’d never met handed her her diploma. It was over in less than five minutes.

But something else happened that day that she’ll remember more.

She looked at her phone and saw an email from ISU, telling her she’d been awarded the Redbird Academic Success Scholarship and the Appreciation of ISU Scholarship. She could afford to go to ISU.

“When I read that email, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to ISU! I’m going to ISU!’ I’m literally going to ISU and that’s all I thought about. It was a dream, and I really didn’t have anyone to support me. I’m extremely happy to be here and start my whole new chapter of life.”

She plans on joining student organizations that advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, fight racism, and develop leadership. Her English teacher told her she was going to make a difference someday. She knows she will, and hopes that’ll be at an elementary school that serves low-income families.

“I’m making a difference for myself right now,” she said. “And I’m going to make a difference to my students that I teach.”

And that’s a number that’s incalculable.

Read about all of the students featured in our “Newest Redbirds” series at