The campus of IUPUI may only be 20 miles from the Zionsville farm where Deirdre Kelley grew up, but it’s a world away from what she knew.
Kelley lived out her childhood on a property with goats and chickens, homeschooled by her mother until textbooks became her teachers.
“I thought it’d be really hard to come to college,” she admits. “However, the self-sufficiency I learned throughout my homeschool education set me up to succeed.”
That experience helped her bridge the gap from homeschool to higher education.
“You think of professors and classes as an opportunity to make learning easier,” she says. “You know you could learn from the textbook alone, but it’s much easier to have a person there to help you explore the concepts.”
For Kelley, one of the people who has helped her explore the world of public affairs is SPEA assistant professor Cullen Merritt. Kelley, a civic leadership major, took her first public affairs class with Merritt before she was even in college.
“I told her that when she became a sophomore, I’d be interested in hiring her as a research assistant,” Merritt recalls. “Freshmen benefit from exploring the wide array of opportunities throughout campus during their first year, but I also wanted to lay the foundation for Deirdre to serve on my research team in the future.”
He says it was Kelley’s thoughtfulness, dedication, and genuine curiosity that caught his attention.
“Her scholarly integrity and intellect has helped enhance my research,” he says. “When she was a freshman, she helped me analyze data for a study. She wasn’t officially working for me at the time; she participated simply because she was interested in the project.”
Merritt says he and Kelley published that article together, noting it’s very rare for freshmen to have their name on a publication. That research is now among the most viewed article on the Journal of Public Affairs Education website.
Yet if you ask Kelley about her academics, she doesn’t mention the accolades.
“Being proud isn’t helpful,” she says. “Looking forward is what’s important.”
A focus on the future led Kelley to the Indiana Statehouse before she enrolled in college. She served as a page for her hometown lawmaker, Rep. Donna Schaibley. She says the time she spent with Rep. Schaibley gave her a desire to pursue more government experiences.
During the 2018 legislative session, she interned for Reps. Tony Cook, Tom Saunders, and Dale DeVon.
“It was amazing to be in the middle of the legislative process,” she says. “I was always on the House floor, working with representatives. You learn about the legislature from books, but don’t really know what it’s like until you’re part of it.”
Her internship provided the foundation for her Honors College project and opened the door to a new research opportunity that will help craft legislation on higher education and workforce development.
Kelley is now gaining insight into the nonprofit sector by working with Heart Change Ministries, a faith-based Indianapolis nonprofit that focuses on supporting mothers and their children.
Her experiences have shown her that nonprofits and government entities both work to help people in the community, but Kelley sees another gap that she can bridge: one between the two sectors.
“Nonprofits don’t have the money or power to help large numbers of people at one time, but the government does,” she says. “In contrast, government doesn’t have the ability to provide individualized support and mentoring, which is what nonprofits can provide.”
Kelley believes she can help find ways to bring mentoring and money together to create better outcomes for her community.
“I feel like my job right now is to look at how the public and private sectors could work together more efficiently,” she says.
In particular, Kelley is focused on building those partnerships at the state level. Her dream is to help Indiana become a model to the rest of the country—and eventually the rest of the world—when it comes to public–private cooperation.
Merritt, for one, doesn’t doubt that Kelley can accomplish that dream.
“Deirdre is passionate about bridging party lines,” he says. “I think that’s what we need in society as a whole, not just in politics. She is ambitious in her desire to bring about informed change.”
“Too many people are driven toward glory and not simply to do good in whatever way they can,” Kelley says.
Doing good is what drives her to pursue her dream. It’s what drove her to select SPEA in the first place.
“SPEA’s motto is making a difference,” she says. “That’s my motto, too. And I’m ready to make it my life’s work, as well.”