Student Profile: Kelly O'Donnell '19
Kelly O’Donnell ’19 has had two unusual international experiences while at Chatham, singlehandedly started the cheerleading squad, and is the Resident Assistant for the Women’s Living and Learning Community—but she’s not done with discoveries yet.
“I have fallen in love with ceramics!” she announces, in the course of talking about her interdisciplinary major of marketing and the visual arts. “Head over heels. I’m in the studio all the time.” O’Donnell says that the first ceramics class was in the spring, and she’s taking another one now, this first semester of her last year at Chatham. It’s a good reminder that new passions could be right around the corner for any of us.
And that older ones needn’t be left behind—take cheerleading. O’Donnell has cheered since she was 12, and her sister coached her in high school. “When I came to Chatham, I thought I was going to do swimming,” she says. “But I just missed cheerleading so much.” So O’Donnell went up to Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Zauyah Waite at a “Dinner with the Deans” event and told her that we should start a cheerleading squad.
“If you can get interest in it, we’d love to do it,” Dean Waite told O’Donnell.
She could and they did. That first year, there were 14 or 15 women on the squad, and now it’s up to almost 20 (and her sister is the coach). “We always say that we’ll be glad to teach you how to cheer as long as you’re dedicated and want to have fun,” O’Donnell says. “It’s so important to have a support system. Cheerleading can have a bad rap sometimes but we keep it really positive.”
As you’d expect from someone who brought in her sister to coach her cheerleading squad, O’Donnell is close to her family. But she was eager to “get away” and study abroad, and was awarded a Vira Heinz scholarship to help make that happen.
“It was incredible to win that scholarship—such a life-changing experience,” O’Donnell says. “I think my work at Chatham, particularly in the Women’s Leadership Certificate, was helpful in helping me get it, because I was able to talk about women in global leadership, which is what the scholarship is meant to encourage.”
O’Donnell went to Ireland. “I knew I wanted to do an internship,” she said. She found an 8-week program in Dublin, studying business and entrepreneurship in an all-day, intensive seminar for two weeks, and then completing an internship for the remaining six. She worked with a small marketing company called mediateam as they put on a horticulture trade show. “I got to do all the social media marketing for them,” she says. “They weren’t using Facebook, and that’s a big platform for their demographic, so I suggested it, and got to create the page.”
A highlight: “At the event, I was walking around with Carol Marks, the head of the Irish Food Board. All of a sudden, Carol says ‘Stand up straight, the Prime Minister is coming over here, chin up, okay, let’s go!’ I stuck my hand out and said ‘Hi, my name is Kelly O’Donnell. I’m working with mediateam for the summer, and I’m really glad to be a part of this event.’ And the Prime Minister was like ‘Oh, nice to meet you!’ It was incredible.”
Shortly after O’Donnell returned to Chatham, she attended a study abroad returnee conference at Carnegie Mellon University, “and I just thought, ‘I have to go abroad again!’ she laughs.
Chatham Study Abroad Coordinator Karin Chipman gave O’Donnell a flyer advertising the United States Indonesian Society (USINDO) Summer Studies fellowship that’s designed to spread awareness of Indonesia to Americans and back again. O’Donnell applied, didn’t hear back, and didn’t think much of it.
“Then one day I was sitting in Anderson having lunch with my friends, and got an email that said ‘Kelly, are you still interested? We’d really like to have you’—the acceptance email had gone to my junk mail! I had a week to decide whether I was going to Indonesia!” she says.
The program was amazing, says O’Donnell. It was located in Yogyakarta (pronounced ‘Jogjakarta’), considered to be the cultural center of the island of Java. There was an intensive language component, and participants got to choose a cultural class to participate in, like martial arts, traditional dance, gamelan (traditional Indonesian music), batik, or cooking. O’Donnell chose cooking.
There were also guest speakers, including local politicians and advocates. “Someone came in and gave a talk on maritime law,” she says. “Coming from a landlocked state, I’d never thought about who owns or has control over the oceans before.”
During the last week of the program, they went to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, for a series of special lectures and meetings, including lunch with the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia at his house. Sound like a full program? There’s also a volunteering component. O’Donnell volunteered with the documentary team at the royal palace in Yogyakarta. “The youngest princess wants more of the world to understand Javanese culture,” says O’Donnell. “So she started this documentary team to livestream events, take photos, things like that.”
“I think I was chosen because not only had I studied social media marketing in America, I had practice implementing them in another country before.”
On the first day of participants’ internships, many had an orientation and were dismissed by 12 noon. But O’Donnell and a friend who was also interning at the palace were invited to return that night and help livestream the royal family as they broke fast for Ramadan. “Yes, we would like to come break fast with the royal courts! Yes, absolutely we would like to do that!” she laughs.
“Working at the palace let me understand Javanese culture in a way I never could have any other way. Plus, I did karaoke with the princess of Yogyakarta and sang Katy Perry’s “Roar” with her. These aren’t experiences you have every day.”
Maybe, but it seems a bit less true of O’Donnell, who is eager to go abroad again after graduation, for work or for graduate school. “Having traveled abroad twice, and going to Indonesia whose language I’ve never even been exposed to, and has such a vastly different culture—I’m so confident in my independence now,” she says. “I absolutely know that I can go anywhere in the world and be okay.”