Gitanjali Rao, 15-year-old Lone Tree girl, named TIME’s first-ever Kid of the Year

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DENVER – The first-ever TIME Magazine Kid of the Year has been named, and she is a 15-year-old girl from Colorado.

Gitanjali Rao, of Lone Tree, was chosen from a pool of more than 5,000 nominees for her “exceptional leadership” in finding solutions to societal problems such as cyberbullying and water contamination, according to a brief description of the selection process from TIME.

“It was exciting. All my friends are really excited, they’ve been freaking out about it all day, as have I – as I should – and it’s just such a surreal exciting, exciting experience,” Rao told Denver7 over Zoom Thursday.

Rao said she was given the news of her most recent accomplishment by Academy Award-winning actor and UN humanitarian ambassador Angelia Jolie, also over Zoom, calling the experience “surreal” and not something she would have ever imagined.

And while she may be the first-ever Kid of the Year, this isn’t the first accomplishment for the bright teenager.

In 2018, Rao, who was just 12 years old at the time, spoke with Denver7 after she was named America’s Top Young Scientist for creating Thetys, a device which detects lead in water – an invention inspired by the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

“I think there’s so much we can do with technology; we just have to apply it in the right way and that’s really what I wanted to start doing,” Rao told Denver7 Thursday when asked about her motivation for helping others. “The whole situation (of the STEM School shooting), if anything, it motivated me to keep doing more – and not just more in terms of using technology, doing more in terms of helping people and just growing as a person.”

Her message for those wanting to change the world?

“I think, if you start with a question of what you’re passionate about and what you like, everything will fall into place. … if anybody wants to change the world, for those of you watching who want to make a positive impact, just start with what you’re passionate about and then dive deep,” Rao said.

TIME’s Kid of the Year broadcast special will air Friday at 5:30 p.m. MST on Nickelodeon.