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Building a Leader Begins Within

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Kelsey Brewer tells the short version of her story this way: “Cal State Fullerton saved my life.”

She was failing English, drowning in self-doubt and nearly failed to graduate high school. Her grandmother — a mentor and best friend — was dying. And the day before Pearlie Marlene Newell Brewer died, the troubled teen promised to do the one thing her grandmother wasn’t given the opportunity to do: graduate from college.

“She took my hand and squeezed it, and she said ‘stop crying,’ ” Brewer says. “The look in her eyes, it was a weird mixture of frustration and love. She was filled with love because she knew what I was capable of. She didn’t want me to be at war with myself.”

Bakersfield offers only a limited future, “especially for women of color,” and college, or the version of it she knew solely from movies, would either make or break her, Brewer says in retrospect.

On May 22 Brewer became the first in her family to graduate from college. A  student trustee for the California State University Board of Trustees, now known for her wit and bold but collaborative voice, spoke of her journey to classmates and their families before crossing the stage to claim her bachelor’s degree in political science.

Her story isn’t unique, she admitted. But its strength comes from its significance, and it mirrored the experience of many wearing black robes in the audience that day, she says.

“There’s a good chance that somebody in your life believed you could succeed even when you couldn’t see past the obstacles that had been placed in your way,” she told the crowd.

Brewer, 22, wears the underdog badge proudly, but humbly acknowledges sacrifices of her family and mentors. She found herself along the path — gaining confidence after clearing each hurdle.

“The administrators and the professors that knew my name and asked me what I wanted to do with my life and then challenged that, they helped me connect to things on campus in a meaningful way,” she says.

By the end of her freshman year, she had found her voice. She discovered an advocacy position with Associated Students, Inc. was open and she had only six hours to meet the deadline to apply. She remembers rambling — but passionately so — during the hour-long interview.

“That was a turning point for me to becoming a little closer to who I am. It also connected me to this group of people so motivated and energetic about their college experience,” says Brewer.

While competing on CSUF’s Moot Court Team and serving on the Associated Students, Inc. Lobby Corps and as the chief governmental officer for ASI, she met another mentor, Tonantzin Oseguera, dean of students.

Oseguera helped Brewer apply for the two-year trustee post on the CSU board, where she championed for underrepresented students and progress to end the graduation gap. She questioned the state board’s practice of not having a student trustee serve in leadership roles on committees, and she secured a vice-chair position — a first in the CSU’s 55-year history.

“Very quickly my focus turned to elevating the voice a student could have,” Brewer says of her role on the statewide board that ends June 30. “I learned: be so good and so informative and so professional that they literally cannot ignore you.”

She pushed for students to join discussions about the collective bargaining units, and shared their stories during hearings on other issues that impacted students’ educational opportunities.

When trustees discussed millions in statewide deferred maintenance costs, Brewer told them about the San Jose State student she’d met — a double-amputee veteran who waits for all the other students to take the elevator to class, and then rides solo, because the aging elevator is only big enough for one wheelchair. The lack of improvements also limit the state’s ability to enroll more students, she says.

When trustees needed motivation to focus on success programs to keep students on track for graduation, she told them about the single mother and the undocumented student who sat beside her in class. “She’s working (hard) to get her bachelor’s degree in six years. He’s got three jobs and he’ll probably take longer than four years to graduate,” says Brewer. “Those students matter just as much as me.”

Brewer says she wants to create a community that is a good learning environment and connects its students to the campus; where all students can have an experience similar to hers. “When we’re not on the same page, the students suffer.

“I’ve learned the decisions we make in this grand room are consequential, and have a real impact in the ability of our students to be successful,” she says.

Brewer already has her eye on the next hurdle — her future career. Strategy now seems instinctual to the confident leader.

To prepare for a future in legislative relations and lobbying, she’s seeking ways to gain related work experience while planning her next academic steps to study public service and public policy.  

It’s a path her grandmother would be proud of, too, says Brewer.

“I know exactly what she would say, ‘That’s my baby!’ ”