Student Spotlight: Kelsey O’Connor
The University Honors Program interviewed this year’s Spring Commencement student speaker, who talked about finding identity and overcoming a traumatic brain injury that ended her softball career.
If you attended the NC State commencement ceremony this past Saturday, May 6 at PNC Arena, our next Student Spotlight feature may look familiar to you. Kelsey O’Connor, a positive, kind and hard-working student who graduated with her degree in social work and a minor in psychology from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and with University Honors Program recognition, had the prestigious honor of delivering the student commencement address.
In addition to completing the University Honors Program, O’Connor was a Dean’s Scholar and a High Impact Achievement Award recipient, both from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. When asked what she is most proud of from her time at NC State, Kelsey responded with, “I was a member of the NC State Women’s Softball team, and I am proud of how hard I worked during that time, but more so I am proud of the way I stood up for others and advocated for the mental health of athletes.”
O’Connor has even more to be proud of, having completed over 200 hours of community service, four years of undergraduate research for the Department of Social Work, a full-time internship at CORRAL Riding Academy, and co-founding the Wolfpack Beds service project, a student group that up-cycles plastic bags into woven, water-resistant sleeping mats for members of the local un-housed community.
“My biggest takeaway from the Honors Program has been that there is always more to learn,” O’Connor said. “The Honors Program seminars and experiences have exposed me to new ideas and subject areas. My favorite experience from all of my four years at NC State was studying abroad with the Honors Program in Oxford, England for the summer of 2022. Participating in an honors seminar while being immersed in the historic city of Oxford was surreal. I learned so much from our discussions, cultural history tour and just traveling for my first time outside of the United States. Overall, the program led me to become a more open-minded human being in so many ways, and has taught me how exciting and fulfilling it is to approach everything as a lifelong learner.”
Kelsey admitted that at one point she struggled to answer the same question most every soon-to-be graduate gets asked by almost everyone they know at this time of year: “What are you going to do next?” In response, O’Connor states, “‘What are you going to do,’ — that’s a very different question from ‘Who are you going to be?’ What I want us to consider is, what does it mean to be a human being, not so much a human doing?”
In her commencement address, O’Connor shared a bit about her NC State journey and grappling with her identities as a student, an athlete and a person, and what happens when one or more of those identities is taken away.
“When I first came to NC State, I had a lot of labels that I was proud of: D1 athlete. Softball player. Social work student. Researcher. If you were to ask me about my identity, I would have listed all of those tangible things.
“But during my junior year, I suffered a traumatic brain injury from softball,” O’Connor continued. “My career-ending concussion meant softball was now forever over, and I was on the brink of even keeping up as a student. I struggled to speak without frequent stuttering, pausing, confusion, and therefore couldn’t even prove myself through performance, academic or otherwise, of any kind. The external labels I had built my entire identity around were broken, crumbled to the core, and I was left with all of the pieces of who I used to be and unsure how to rebuild.”
“So as I recovered for several months, I made a resolution to rebuild my identity,” O’Connor said. “I decided that in order to heal the way I saw myself, I’d start by the way I saw and spoke about others. I would start describing people not by their labels, but by three things: their attitude, the way they treat others and what makes them uniquely beautiful. Instead of describing my roommate as an engineer, I’d first say to you that she is a kind, intelligent, adventurous person who loves her family deeply. The more I started equating other people’s identities towards their internal characteristics, the more I began to build a healthier foundation for myself. Seeing individuals, and myself, not for what they do, but for who they really are… Regardless of what you choose to do, you will always have the opportunity to be the person you’ve dreamed of when you choose a positive attitude, treat others with genuine kindness, and appreciate your unique inner beauty. If you embrace those three things, your life will become more rich with seeing the world through a lens beyond the labels that confine us.”
Kelsey does have some form of a response ready for the dreaded “what’s next?” question she mentioned in her commencement address, however, and she credits the Honors Program for helping her to arrive at an answer. “The Honors Program taught me how to think critically and intentionally about things. I am a better, more well-rounded person because of participating in the Honors Program. It challenged me to complete my senior capstone research project, which contributed to my aspirations to attend graduate school and pursue sports psychology, to help athletes transitioning out of their sport and support them on their own journeys of rediscovery.”
If you are interested in applying for the Student Commencement Speaker role for the semester of your own graduation, you can learn more about auditioning at https://commencement.ncsu.edu/student-speaker/.