Undeterred, striving for success

Valencia High School alumna Keilah Kelso achieved her dream of graduating from UCLA. Kelso says she faced multiple obstacles, including being hit by a drunk driver with two girls in the car. (Courtesy photo)

Approximately 3,800 Hart District freshmen began their high school studies on Thursday, prompting a Valencia High School and recent UCLA graduate to recall the story of her academic journey and offer advice to the students who are in the same place she was more than a decade ago.

As expected of the scholars in the William S. Hart Union High School, Keilah Kelso was an active student who was involved in student government, as well as the cheer and track teams, where she ran the 100-yard dash, relay and jumped hurdles — both on the track and in life.

Kelso graduated Valencia as an honor student in 2006, but was unable to realize her dream of attending UCLA after not being accepted out of high school.

Undeterred from accomplishing the goals she had set for herself, and facing a decision between attending USC or Cal State Northridge, Kelso chose a third option and went to trade school to get her pharmacy technician’s license.

“As life went on, I decided I really should go back to school,” Kelso said. “I’ve always enjoyed learning and felt that knowledge is power. You can be the poorest person in the world, but with knowledge you can get ahead in life.”

Kelso wanted to attend College of the Canyons, “but at the same time, I wanted a fresh start,” she said. “I grew up out here and knew everybody, but I felt I’d do better in new surroundings.”

After discovering a direct transfer program to UCLA from the community college in Pasadena, Kelso jumped at the opportunity.

While taking more than 20 units in her final quarters and majoring in both psychology and studio art, Kelso became pregnant with a daughter, who is now 3.

“It was challenging,” Kelso said, “but I wouldn’t change it for the world because I embrace challenge.”

Going into her last quarter, Kelso was more than eight months pregnant with her daughter Niah, but she still decided to take 23 credits.

“My family was saying, ‘You’re crazy. Don’t take that many classes,’” Kelso said, “but I just wanted to be done on time and I didn’t want anything holding me back,” and she didn’t, as she would graduate with two associate’s degrees and with honors — like she did at Valencia.

“I took a year off after graduation to spend time with Niah,” Kelso said, but she still had her heart set on attending her dream university, so she applied, got in and “then I repeated my (community college) life all over again at UCLA,” she added with a laugh.

After her acceptance to UCLA as a transfer student in 2016, Kelso moved from Northern California into her sister’s house with a 14-month-old daughter, without a job or a car, and soon found herself pregnant with a second child.

Determined to succeed in the face of life’s hurdles, Kelso put her community college degrees to use and began teaching fourth-graders micro-, meso- and macro-levels of economics using an art-based curriculum.

“I did all of that my first year, on top of taking classes and being pregnant,” Kelso said. In the same fall quarter, she was hit by a drunk driver with her two girls in the car.

“By the grace of God, we were OK,” Kelso said. “My car was totaled, but the girls and I were fine.”

She described the ordeal as one of life’s most stressful times, “because I knew the winter quarter would be starting and I needed a car,” Kelso said. “It was all mentally, emotionally and financially burdensome, but we got through it.”

After securing a new car, Kelso remained undaunted by life’s challenges and applied for an honors program that same winter quarter, which granted her a scholarship to fund research that she had always wanted to perform.

“I’ve always had a passion for promoting the youth and motivating the youth,” Kelso said. It’s exactly why she majored in psychology and minored in education at UCLA and mentored Pasadena students her senior year to ensure they were on track to attend college, whether it be a four-year, two-year or trade school.

“I’m curious about what motivates people to want to go to school and what motivates them not to want to go to school,” Kelso said. “There’s a lot of misconceptions on why children decide not to go to college, so I wanted to look at the external and internal factors and address those directly.”

Once in the research program, Kelso became heavily involved in the education minor program, where she served as chair of a committee and was one of 12 students invited to a luncheon with UCLA’s chancellor.

“I felt really honored,” Kelso said. “Without the education minor, I don’t think I would have enjoyed UCLA as much as I did.”

In May 2017, Kelso gave birth to her second daughter Natalie with less than two weeks until finals, so she brought the newborn to her exams and, as expected, successfully passed.

“I was excited (and) filled with joy to be done with my first year at UCLA,” Kelso said. “I was elated I had my daughters while in college, because I can tell both of my daughters that no matter what happens in your life, you have to continue to strive for success.”

“I’ve proved to them that sometimes you might fall, but in times of failure, you should look for the lessons to be learned,” Kelso said. “The word can’t shouldn’t be in your vocabulary. The only time you should use ‘can’t’ is when you say, ‘There’s nothing I can’t do.’”

During her senior year at UCLA, Kelso enrolled in 21 credits in her final semester in an effort to finish on time. By the end of spring 2018, she was receiving awards, presenting her research project and graduating from her dream institution.

“It was surreal. It was really, really surreal,” Kelso said, still unable to fathom her accomplishments months after the commencement ceremony.

“I’ve been applying to different positions over the course of the summertime,” Kelso said. She hopes to make her return to the SCV soon, as she will interview for a financial aid-related position at COC in the coming weeks.

“This is where I grew up. It’s not where I am from, but it’s like home,” Kelso said, adding she hopes to work with the youth in the SCV, just as she did at UCLA in her final year.

“I know there’s a lot more diversity out here than when I was growing up and the world has changed, so there’s a lot of emphasis on education, right now,” Kelso said. “This is somewhere I want to be, so I can give back to the community who gave me so much support on my way to bettering myself.”

While Kelso would love to stay local and find a position, she added, “Whatever door God opens for me is what is meant for me, (so) I’ll continue to have faith.”

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