From high school dropout to distinguished graduate


Marrissa Hellesen never received a high school education, but she worked her way to earn an undergraduate degree in computer science. Hellesen walked the stage at her graduation on Sunday and will begin a job with Microsoft this summer.

By Alicia Lee

After finishing eighth grade, she never went to high school. She was in the gifted academy and ahead of other junior high students. But because of the classes she had to retake to enter high school, she felt frustrated and decided with her parents to be homeschooled. The homeschooling situation, however, did not work out, and Hellesen ended up getting her GED at the age of 15 and working right away.

“I started at Pizza Hut; that was my first job. I started the day after my 16th birthday,” Hellesen said. “I worked there, and then at Bed Bath and Beyond. I had a couple of jobs, just a lot of little, weird jobs.”

Among those little, weird jobs was a position at a call center for T-Mobile Technical Support. This job, however, caused a turning point in her life. It made her decide to go to college.

“I had a team of people that were mostly twice my age, and I saw that it wasn’t easy for them. They were just working paycheck to paycheck, day by day,” Hellesen said. “Although it was great money for me at the time, it wasn’t going to get me where I wanted, and I knew that I needed to do school.”

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She started her college education at Rock Valley College in Rockford. Getting into the college was easy, but her entrance exams placed her into four levels below college-level math.

“It was difficult,” Hellesen said. “I remember paying my tuition payments every month and working extra. I would study under my desk at work. I worked really hard to get through that time of working full time and going to school full time.”

This time in her life, however, proved to be very important. She was able to meet Steve Dunn, the engineering professor at Kishwaukee College. Although he passed away last December, he helped Hellesen fall in love with engineering and computer science.

“Steve Dunn was the coolest dude,” Hellesen said. “He wore the same black jeans and red flannel shirt every day. He had a long beard, long white hair, and he was a total hippie.

“He loved us and loved what he did,” she added. “He came to my geometry class and was like, ‘You guys can be engineers,’ and I wasn’t even in college math yet. The fact that he knew I could do it made me think that maybe I could.”

After completing community college with a 4.0 GPA, Hellesen attended the University, where she eventually majored in computer science.

In the University’s computer science program, she became a leader in the field. She won awards for her involvement – whether that was running Hack Illinois, a 36-hour hacking competition, or Women in Computer Science.

Bri Chapman, senior in LAS and Engineering, is Hellesen’s close friend. Chapman said she has noticed Hellesen’s hard work and kind heart and feels inspired by her story.

“Marrissa is an extremely giving person,” Chapman said. “If she sees a need, she has to fill it, whether it be helping me create a group for beginning developers, volunteering to help transfer students feel more at home during their introduction to Illinois, or by fighting LGBT rights and diversity and inclusion in the tech industry.”

Hellesen comes from a Cherokee background, and she said her family —­ especially her father, who is disabled — was her driving force.

“Seeing how hard my dad has worked for his entire life and seeing the kinds of things that he’s going to need now, that has made it the most important that I’m successful,” Hellesen said. “That way, I can provide those things for him because he provided so many things for me.”

Instead of seeing her “high school dropout” status as a weakness, Hellesen uses it to encourage and reassure others.

Hanan Jaber, senior in LAS, experienced this firsthand.

“I personally had a bit of a struggle with computer science at first because I didn’t know if I could do this, and it was too hard,” Jaber said. “But she was using it as an example of how perseverance actually shows success at the end. She would tell me, ‘Look, I was a high school dropout, but look where I’m at now. You can do this, too.’”

Her hard work has paid off, as Hellesen will be starting work at Microsoft this summer as a software developer for Word.

Her 10-year plan is to be a CEO of a company.

Hellesen said she has noticed the gender divide in the fields of engineering and computer science and wishes that more women would step into the field.

“Women can do this. A lot of women think they can’t, and a lot of people think women can’t, but we’re just as capable, and I think it’s important that women experience what computing is — not just hackers in the basement drinking Mountain Dew and eating pizza,” Hellesen said. “It’s a beautiful, fun, creative art, and I wish more women knew that and more women saw it.”

Her advice for high school dropouts and students who might be going through a difficult time is to buckle down and push through.

“You just have to decide that you want it, and it’s not going to happen because anybody else wants you to do it,” she said. “You have to decide that you’re going to buckle down and push through. … And once you’ve made that decision, there’s nothing that can stop you.”

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