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Florida State University

Kelsey Peña

Student aspires to improve educational options for at-risk youth

"I want them to receive the same benefits I received from a good education."
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Major: English Literature
Graduation: Spring 2014


With an impressive résumé of volunteer work to her credit, Florida State University student Kelsay Peña has demonstrated a commendable dedication during her undergraduate years to changing the world one life at the time.

"The culture of passion and persistence in creating a better world is what solidified my decision to attend Florida State," Peña said. "Once I was admitted into the university, I learned about the Center for Leadership and Social Change and realized just how wonderful the campus community really is."

By joining the university's Service Scholar program as a freshman, Peña was required to complete 30 service-hours with various organizations to find a niche. Almost immediately, she was drawn to mentoring at-risk youth, and took advantage of numerous opportunities to do so.

Working with PeaceJam, Peña led group of middle school students through a one-year curriculum based on the teachings of ten Nobel Laureates.

"The goal is to help these children become more knowledgeable citizens of the world by showing them how to learn from their environments, find their own strengths and use their experiences to change the world for the better," Peña said.

During that year, she met a 13-year-old girl with tremendous personal hardships.

"I realized how something as simple as being an open and listening ear could truly affect someone," Peña said. The experience with the girl sparked Peña's interest in obtaining a law degree — to be a voice for children without one.

As a sophomore, Peña served as a big sister to another local girl through Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Big Bend. Peña helped the girl with her homework and attended her extracurricular activities. Peña also shadowed the girl in her classes, and was disheartened by the quality of the girl's educational experience.

"I got a good understanding of how far behind the students were in this school and how little they seemed to progress throughout the year," said Peña, who did not stand by and watch, but obtained permission from the girl's teacher to help invigorate their classroom experience.

"I facilitated interactive games and lessons that supplemented their studies," she said. "Through this experience, I got to show these children that someone cared about them and their academic progress.

"I was fortunate enough to have had access to quality education," she said. "It is unacceptable that such a difference can exist that perpetuates the cycle of poor education and poverty."

This experience further strengthened Peña's desire to gain enough knowledge of the law to be able to assist in creating positive changes to the nation's educational system.

As a junior, Peña began interning with Project KICK (Kids in Cooperation with Kids), a local intervention and mentoring program for at-risk youth participating in the Boys and Girls Club of the Big Bend. After a year, she became Project KICK's site coordinator, mentoring 7- to 12-year-olds, facilitating interventions and creating curricula, among other duties.

"I witnessed a lot of the behavorial problems associated with children who experience extreme adversity in life," she said. "The amount of work that I put into this program, however, was matched two-fold by the benefits I gained. I learned just how desperately I want to help give these children the same opportunity of a bright future that I was given."

Through other experiences, from assisting in a public school language arts classroom 10 hours a week as a mentor with the AmeriCorps College Access Program to mentoring a fifth grade student four hours a week through the Grace Mission Campus Outreach, Peña has now firmly committed her future career to helping at-risk children.

"I want them to receive the same benefits I received from a good education," Peña said.

Peña's record of service made her an obvious selection for Florida State's Student Profiles of Service award. Sponsored by the Division of Student Affairs and the Center for Leadership and Social Change, the recognition celebrates students who demonstrate exemplary commitment to local, national or international service.

Antron Mahoney, assistant director of the Center for Leadership and Social Change, said Peña exemplifies a sense of commitment, integrity and awareness that is "truly remarkable."

"Kelsey stands out because of her ability to successfully translate her learning experiences into meaningful social action, particularly through her work with mentoring and organizing Project KICK," said Mahoney, who works with Peña as a Service Scholar mentor.

After she graduates, Peña plans to attend law school at the University of Florida and use her legal education to broaden access to education.