North Dakota 20-year-old from Turtle Mountain reservation graduates from Harvard

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – As if graduating from Harvard University with a degree in molecular and cellular biology isn’t impressive enough, try doing it before you can even legally drink.

“I applied to Harvard as a joke,” said McKayla Gourneau of Belcourt, a city of about 2,000 in north-central North Dakota on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. “I mean, it’s Harvard. I didn’t think I’d get in.”

Though getting into one of the world’s most elite universities wasn’t her plan, Gourneau was an exceptional student. She graduated from Turtle Mountain High School two years early.

“We’ve always been so proud of her,” said Margo Gourneau, McKayla’s mom. “From the time she was 18 months old, she had this ability. We knew we were in trouble, and from that point on, there was no stopping her.”

Now, she’s set to graduate from Harvard this spring at age 20. Looking back, Gourneau is not sure she was completely ready for it. She wonders if she went too early.

“I don’t know how you were at 16, but I thought I knew it all,” she said. “I didn’t really know how to study. I remember getting a C-minus my freshman year and was like ‘oof’.”

Gourneau is not sure if she would have made it without her family and the native community at Harvard.

“My Mom and Dad always told me, ‘It’s OK if you don’t finish,’ ” she said.

That unconditional support was what convinced her to never give up. “Knowing I had that option, but the type of person I am, I was like, nah. I have to finish,” she said.

Next up is hopefully medical school and master’s degrees in education and public health. Gourneau hopes her journey helps inspire other kids from the reservation, because she believes with the right support system you can do anything you set your mind to.

“You’ll never get to do something if you don’t try it,” she said.

She’ll get a chance to provide some of that inspiration this weekend. Her graduation ceremony at Harvard was Thursday, and she’s the keynote speaker at the Turtle Mountain High School commencement ceremony today.