Kelsey Ensign, ’15, remembers the exact moment she decided to transfer to University of Richmond. Following a conversation with Bonner Scholar Emily Blevins, ’13, who attended Ensign’s Chattanooga, Tenn., high school, Ensign logged into her computer to learn more about the work Blevins was doing through the University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE).

“I vividly remember sitting in my dorm room exploring the CCE home page,” Ensign says. “I looked at all the community partners and thought I could learn a lot about civic engagement and myself at University of Richmond.”

Ensign wasted no time when she arrived on campus as a sophomore transfer student. She secured a federal-work-study position as a CCE student coordinator responsible for coordinating events, such as the Brown Bag Discussion Series, before taking leadership of the CCE’s Students for Educational Equality (SEE) issue coalition, planning on-campus events to raise awareness of public-education issues.  

But Ensign didn’t limit herself to work in the CCE office. Her first semester she registered with Build It, the CCE’s neighborhood-based civic-engagement program, to volunteer as a tutor and mentor with the Youth Life Foundation of Richmond, a nonprofit that runs after-school learning centers for low-income children. Three years later, she’s still there.

“It’s important to dissect theoretical issues,” Ensign says, “but it’s also important to do the work, to understand people’s experiences on a personal level.”

Ensign has made that personal connection through her weekly Youth Life mentoring sessions with Amia, a fourth grader whom Ensign describes as “a phenomenal student.”

She has also made connections between her work in the community and the CCE office to her history major and an education minor.

“Last year I took American Identities with Dr. Yellin,” Ensign says. “It’s interesting to think about how we form our racial, gender, and religious identities. Studying race-based identity was most informative to my community work. Through community work, you learn how to confront and deal with your own biases.”

 Ensign received an Arts and Sciences Summer Research Fellowship to research her senior thesis, “The Politics of Naming: Black Identity and the Debate over the 'Negro' Question in 1960s America.”

“My thesis examines transitions in racial terms, like Negro and black, and how these terms affect the building of racial identity,” Ensign says. “I can connect my thesis to my lived experience in the community.”

In her final semester at Richmond, Ensign took on a second mentoring role in the community. Through the CCE’s PACE program, she now mentors a small group of Higher Achievement scholars at Henderson, a public middle school serving a low-income student population.

Whether mentoring at Youth Life or Higher Achievement, Ensign says, “I have learned how important being there every week is. The kids know they can count on you. If you’re going to be there, you need to keep being there. This is key to civic-engagement work.”

And Ensign plans to keep on being there, even after graduation.

“I’ve been struggling with how to keep in touch with Amia,” she says. “We’ve talked about being pen pals. If I can still be there as a form of support, I’d like to be, even if I am not physically in this city any more.”

She’ll soon be headed to New Jersey, where, as a Teach for America corps member, she will combine her love of history and education by teaching secondary social studies in an urban school.

“I think I will always be involved in some way in the teaching/education realm. It may take on various forms, but at least for the next few years, I’ll be teaching.”

Photo of Kelsey Ensign and her Youth Life mentee, Amia, courtesy of Briget Ganske