SUNDAY: Inspiring MSU grads — Tales from the road to graduation

Posted: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 4:17 pm
GAIL SCHONTZLER, Chronicle Staff Writer |0 comments

An estimated 2,600 students will graduate in two weeks from Montana State University, and each one has a story to tell.

Each has to overcome obstacles, struggle with doubts, persevere and find inspiration on the road to graduation.

Here are the stories of four successful MSU seniors in the Class of 2012.

Passion for helping people

Even fire ants couldn’t stop Kelsey Jackson.

In her freshman year, Jackson traveled to New Orleans over spring break to volunteer helping to clean up the city, four years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

She and other MSU students worked on restoring the run down City Park. Cleaning up garbage, erasing graffiti and planting was hot, sweaty work, she recalled, with “lots of fire ants, too.” But meeting local women battling to restore their community was inspiring.

“After the first year, I was really excited about doing service,” Jackson said. “I like giving back. It’s rewarding.”

The next spring, at age 19, she volunteered as a student leader of a Breaks Away trip for MSU’s Office of Community Involvement. She drove with a dozen students to San Francisco to serve meals at Glide Memorial Church’s homeless shelter. Seeing hundreds of people sleeping on city sidewalks was shocking at first. The hardest part was seeing young children whose families were homeless.

“I learned these are people, too,” Jackson said. “They’re not that different from me.”

Back in Bozeman, a class assignment from MSU instructor Jill Davis had her interview and write up the stories of local homeless people. That led Jackson to volunteer as an unpaid summer intern with Family Promise, the church-based nonprofit that helps Bozeman’s homeless families with temporary shelter and job assistance.

For the past two years, Jackson has worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer with Family Promise, coordinating Saturday activities for families. She gets a modest stipend, to help with her $17,000 in student loans.

The most rewarding thing for her is running into families that have graduated from Family Promise, getting a call from a mom who thanked her for helping them get back on their feet, or seeing the kids and knowing “you’re part of their lives.”

Despite taking a full college load of 15 credits, Jackson has managed to volunteer 15 hours a week at Family Promise, while working up to 40 hours at World Market to support herself.

“I’m usually booked from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., and one night a week until 1 a.m.,” Jackson said. On Wednesday mornings, she’s a CAP mentor for a fourth-grade boy at Morning Star School.

“She’s incredible,” said Carmen McSpadden, head of MSU’s Leadership Institute, who called Jackson one of the most organized students she knows.

At age 21, Jackson has done more to serve others than many people do in a lifetime. She will graduate with honors, a major in community health, a minor in business administration and a Leadership Fellow certificate.

“I’m really passionate about health care,” Jackson said. She hopes to go to graduate school in a year and work to improve the health care system, particularly for the homeless.

“At Family Promise,” she said, “there’s a saying, ‘We’re all just one paycheck away from being homeless.’”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.