How could I forget first meeting Melissa Kelly this past June? She’d just wrapped up her junior year. The flurry of spring commencement having settled recently, I was the only soul in T’s, and ravenous for a grilled cheese. I remember vividly her incandescent energy, her kindness and that sublime gap-toothed smile. With the entire place nearly to ourselves, we had time to chat while the buttered bread browned on the grill. She asked me where I worked. She told me of her love for writing. Her entrepreneurship major. She regaled me with stories of her everyday life, laughing and smiling until my sandwich was perfectly gooey on the inside, toasted on the outside.
When we met for this column, I was excited to get to know Melissa better. Our topics covered a little bit of everything from her childhood to her last year at St. Thomas.
Tell me about your family.
I have a different dynamic, I would say. My mom had me at 43, which I can appreciate. I have two sisters – Leah, who’s 41, and Emily, who’s 31. And then there’s me, and I’m 21. I also have two brothers, one I’ve never technically met but who contacted me on Facebook my sophomore year. He lives in Georgia, where my dad lives. We have different mothers. When I got a friend request from a James Kelly, I instantly started crying because I knew it had to be my brother because my dad doesn’t even have a cell phone! After that I got around 90 friend requests from different family members with the same last name Kelly. It was great to make all those connections.
Describe your life before St. Thomas.
I was born at Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis and grew up on the south side of Minneapolis. When I was 12, I moved to the north side for a year. I still remember the day my mom told me we were moving. I was, like, ‘Oh my gosh, no!’ because I knew we already lived in the ‘hood, and I knew that was the ‘hoooooood! But I actually had fun there and made a lot of friends. Then a year later we moved to Edina when I was going into seventh grade, so I ended up graduating from Edina High School. Looking back, I can appreciate being from the south and north sides of Minneapolis and then living in Edina because I feel like I’m street smart and book smart, and I feel a lot of people don’t have both of those qualities.
Thirteen is a tough age to switch schools.
I did miss the friends I grew up with, but I’m glad it all played out the way it did, even though I was sad at first. When I got to Edina, my very real initial thought was, ‘Hmmm. I guess black people don’t come to school on the first day?’ But they accepted me, and most of the friends I still keep in touch with today – including my best friend, my soul mate – are from Edina. Maybe it helped I wasn’t like anybody else. I was poor. I lived in an apartment, and there were times I was embarrassed to have my friends over. But I always kept my south side and north side in me, so I think that gave me confidence. I remember the school dance in seventh grade, and everyone saying, ‘Oh my God, you know how to dance!’
You work an awful lot. How do you spend your Sundays?
I’ve worked in Dining Services since I was a freshman. I’ve worked about 40 hours each week this summer, and around 20 hours a week during the school year. On weekends I love to sleep in. But sleeping in for me is 9. Then I get up and if it’s beautiful I like to go on a walk. That’s ideal. But other than that … it’s nice to just sit on my butt all day and be lazy, maybe a “Friends” marathon. And I call my mom.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
Going to South Africa over J-Term last year. Our group had a homestay in this township called Gugulethu and we would often get together with our homestay parents and talk. One day our ‘mother,’ who’s a social worker, was telling me about the drug and alcohol addiction issues in the community, the shortage of food. I asked her if there were people like her who are mentoring the kids. She thought about it silently for a full minute before she answered, ‘No.’ Then she walked outside and came back with a couple of random women. We all had this wonderful conversation about what life is like for them before it turned to what they can do to lift themselves out of poverty. It’s not what you’d call a traditional accomplishment, but the experience shaped the way I live now. It inspired me to do work that addresses my passions, like my internship with Cheetah Development – it’s this amazing nonprofit that helps impoverished subsistence farmers lift themselves out of poverty by helping them transition to commercial farming.
If you had one hour to spend $100, where would you go and what would you spend it on?
That’s a good question and I feel like I’ve been careless with my money. I want to save more and be conscious about what I’m spending my money on. Maybe a couple months ago I might’ve said clothes or a bag. Something materialistic. Something I don’t need. Now I’d spend it on something I need. Food. Toiletries. Whatever $100 can get me. That answer is so boring but that’s real life. I’m an adult now and that is what I’d spend that money on.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Macaroni and cheese. I’m allergic to cheese and eggs but I will scarf down a big bowl. And I don’t do it from the box. I make it homemade with the milk and the roux and the shredded cheese.