ALUM | Marlee Kelly, 2016

Marlee Kelly '16

With the strong foundation of a Red Cloud education, alumna Marlee Kelly ‘16 forged her own path at Yale University, earning her degree in English last spring during the escalation of the global pandemic. We’re thrilled she’s back at Red Cloud this year serving as an AmeriCorps member—drawing on her incredible knowledge of literature as our Elementary School Librarian—while she plans the next step in her journey: pursuing a PhD and teaching the next generation.

Marlee, how does it feel to be back at Red Cloud this year?

It’s so exciting to be back. [Because of the pandemic] I haven’t been able to work with students, but it’s wonderful to be working with the teachers who are supporting our students right now. It’s also wild to see how much has changed since I was a student, especially in the elementary school, where I haven’t been in years and years, and to see how much has evolved. My sister [who is a teacher] sits next to me, and it’s great to hear how excited the students are about learning, and how excited they are about school.

After Red Cloud, why did you choose Yale?

The Native American Cultural Center did play a big role in my decision; Yale has a tight knit Native community that is bigger than many other schools and spans the entire country. But also, I was able to visit campus before choosing Yale, during an Admitted Students Weekend, and I felt so comfortable there. I spent time walking around as if I were a student, and it felt like a place where I could see myself for four years. So when I arrived as a student, I knew it was where I was supposed to be. It was a sense of safety and comfort, both in terms of having the Native community at Yale, and the wider New Haven community as well.

Talk about your academic experience at Yale, from your first year on.

I wasn’t ready to leave home when I left in 2016. I’d never been away from home, and that far away, for long periods of time. I was really worried about what it was going to be like, not being with anyone i know. But I did go off to Yale with one other Red Cloud student who I graduated with, and we were each other’s rock. And once I got there and got used to it, made friends and got used to my classes, and just generally adjusted to college, it was much better. I routinely think back on the last four years and realize how much I miss it. I really enjoyed those four years in a way I didn’t think I would when I left, because I didn’t know I could have that kind of college experience. It was genuinely one of my favorite things I’ve ever done, and it’s really influenced how I want to move forward with my life.


What did you love about being in an entirely new place and community?

One of the things I miss is living in and walking around in a city. I loved walking places, instead of having to drive everywhere. I enjoyed walking from my room to dinner, and from dinner to work, and just finding cafes and coffee shops to sit in and work. Those were some of my favorite things about living in New Haven. And around this time each year, I’d go apple picking, and I really miss apple picking!


What was your life like at Yale, outside of academics?

I wasn’t in a lot of formal clubs, but I worked a lot. I was a student worker at the Yale Center for British Arts in their gift shop, which was wonderful because I got to meet so many people and different artists. I also did a lot of things with the Native American Cultural Center at Yale. I was a peer liaison, so essentially an upperclassman who gets assigned a small group of Native first year students, to help them navigate Yale as they make the transition to college. And my last year, I was a first year counselor within Yale’s residential system of houses, which means I was assigned 14 first-year students, to work closely with and serve as their first point of contact and a support for really everything and anything as they learned to be students at Yale. It was the biggest part of my life outside of academics over this last year, and something I really loved. It really pulls you into a strong and tight-knit community.



What was it like to graduate during the pandemic?

I really wanted to walk in our graduation ceremony—I’d looked forward to it for four years—so it was sad not to have that. And my family never got to visit New Haven, and do all the things they would have done during commencement, because of the pandemic. But it also gave me some unique experiences, like being able to sit down and watch the commencement speech in real time with my mom and my sister, which wouldn’t have happened during a regular graduation. I didn’t get a traditional college graduation and enjoy all the last parties that Yale throws for it’s seniors, and all those fun little traditions that I’ve seen for the past four years. But it was nice to be at home and celebrate with my family in the way we usually do, like dinner and cake around the table together.

What are you thinking about for the future?

Right now I’m applying to graduate programs, for doctoral programs in either English or American Students, depending on the faculty members who I feel could really mentor me through six years of work and where my research would best fit in. I eventually want to be Dr. Marlee Kelly, because that would be really cool. I’ve always said I wanted to teach right out of high school, and eventually that’s still my goal. But I’m looking for ways to continue my education. And since I didn’t get to walk at graduation at Yale, I need another chance at walking!

What advice would you share with Red Cloud students, or Red Cloud graduates now in college, who are studying while in the midst of the pandemic?

My biggest piece of advice is just to breathe and step back, and take a moment to recenter yourself in whatever you’re doing. Remember this is part of a bigger picture. In times of desperation, when you want to give up, just remember, this too shall pass. Take the time to remember why you’re doing what you’re doing, and what you love about it, and why it’s a part of your plan. Find something bright in each day, and keep looking for those small moments to push you forward.

And general, ask for help! People are always willing to help, but you have to ask. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way. No one is going to judge you for asking for help, and so many people don’t actually ask when they need it. And when they finally do, instead of just surviving, they thrive.




Photos © Red Cloud Indian School 


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