Kelsey Hicks left Memphis for college with plans to become a neonatologist. Today, she's Director of the Women's Resource Center at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn., a dream position, she says, that she started just two months ago. Her road has been long and winding - her ease navigating that road is a testament to where she spent a lot of her time growing up.
"Girls Inc. has made me compassionate and considerate," says 29-year-old Kelsey, "and also daring and empowered - in a sense, fearless."
Put another way - Kelsey Hicks is bold.
She was active at the South Park Center from age 5 to 18, where she was exposed to everything from gymnastics to ballet and learned--from studying historical figures and from spending time with center staff--what it means to be a bold woman of color.
"One thing that I always remember about being at Girls Inc. of Memphis - they forced me to face my fears. I didn't want to be in gymnastics - but they always pushed me. I can still hear the women that worked at our center. 'You can do it! Don't be scared--just try it!'
"And in the middle of that I can hear my mom. She always used to say, 'Nothing beats an effort but a try.'”
Kelsey was born in Clarksdale, Miss., moved to Memphis at 4 and started Girls Club (which soon became Girls Inc. of Memphis) at age 5. Her immersion in Girls Inc. programming shaped her over the next 13 years, and Girls Inc. became extended family.
"I am an only child," Kelsey said, "but I have sisters and aunts from Girls Inc. everywhere - they are my family."
She absorbed everything Girls Inc. had to offer and by 14 she was working as an intern, counseling girls about their health and their sexuality. As part of the college prep program, she toured colleges in Mississippi her senior year, but wound up choosing The University of Tennessee at Knoxville where she quickly changed her major from biomedical engineering to religious studies.
"It turns out I love the social side of people more than I love the physical side," she said.
She earned her bachelor's in 2005 and worked for a publishing company then went to work for the State of Tennessee in child protective services. She loved the work but it overwhelmed her and she decided to make a big change. She moved to Georgia, moved in with a family friend and got to work on a masters in education at Mercer University.
"I was determined I was not going to let myself go back home and I was determined I was going to get the degree and it was going to get me where I needed and wanted to be."
She got the degree, then worked at the College of Wooster in Ohio and at Texas Woman's University. Along the way she experienced sexism, racism, inadequate pay and a fair amount of frustration. But she didn't give up - she just drew on that Girls Inc. boldness.
"I looked at what I was doing and said 'I can do more. I can be more.'"
At Bucknell she is the youngest director in her department, working to support students and act as a liaison to administration. She draws on her experiences at Girls Inc. and beyond every day to enrich her students and build them up.
"I am bold in this position," Kelsey says. "Everything I’ve done professionally has been a bold step. Even if it didn’t match, I have moved, navigated and built community wherever I’ve been."
Her perseverance along her winding career path has paid off and she's now paid to empower her students in the same way that she's been empowered.
"Girls Inc. encouraged me to stand up and be unapologetic," Kelsey said, "and that I don’t have to please anyone on my journey of exploration but myself. They were my village - the village it takes to raise a child."