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June 21, 2019

Service-learning inspired alum to find true calling

Kaya Lee helps foster children build brighter futures

You don’t have to sell Kaya Lee on the idea of volunteerism. Her service-learning experience at FGCU helped her discover her passion and opened the door to her career.

Photo of FGCU alumna
Kaya Lee

Since graduating in 2018 with a psychology degree, Lee has worked at the Children’s Home Society, which works with foster children in Southwest Florida. But she has been working with children all her life. Her mom assisted homeless families and substance abuse recoverees before retiring from social work, so Lee helped out with her projects. She also became a Sunday school teacher at age 14.

Coming to FGCU changed things. Until then, volunteerism felt like “helping mom out” because that’s what she was doing. They were mom’s projects under mom’s leadership. And they were gratifying. But at FGCU, Lee became the driver of her own service experiences—choosing the agencies she volunteered for and taking leadership roles in service-oriented groups. This shift inspired her passion and, as she says, “helped her find herself and her true calling.”

[ Part of a series exploring how service-learning influences careers ]

Her current story began freshman year when a friend encouraged her to join the Students for Children organization on campus. Students for Children volunteers with a number of agencies to give disadvantaged children resources and experiences they otherwise would not have. Since students brainstorm the programs themselves and approach agencies to serve, it helped her enhance her creativity and learn how to do a lot with a little.

One of the organizations they served was the Children’s Home Society. Students for Children devised a program where kids come to the campus, take a tour, meet students and talk to them about college and life in general. But there was one key fact that nobody told her at the time that would inform Lee’s professional future: Foster children in Florida receive free tuition waivers for the state’s universities and colleges.

So there was deeper import to these tours than she knew. College wasn’t just an abstract idea for these children. It was a reality—if they knew about it and wanted it to be. She also didn’t know that only 2.5% of eligible teenagers use their waiver.

Lee stayed with Students for Children throughout college, eventually becoming the group’s president. As she moved toward graduation, she saw that the Children’s Home Society was looking for a part-time family support worker. But the job required two years of experience, leaving Lee thinking, “There is no way I’m going to get into that agency.” But she applied anyway. She documented every minute of her volunteer experiences through University Colloquium and Students for Children. In the end, it added up to two years of full-time work. She got the job.

Today, Lee works on the other side of the Children’s Home Society equation as an independent living counselor, helping foster children learn interviewing skills, secure a bank account and develop other “adulting” tools. She makes herself present for FGCU’s initiatives, because she remembers running programs with little agency input. She makes it known that her agency is seeking volunteers as an agency approved by FGCU’s Office of Service-Learning. And she ensures that students and foster children alike understand that campus tours aren’t just field trips—they present a viable and realistic option for the children’s futures.

With her student-led tours thriving, she has now begun focusing on setting up a mentorship program between foster children and college students. The program is coming to speed gradually, but there are already early results. One child, who has lived in five different households in the past year, found a welcome and consistent source of support from her student mentor. Lee would love to eventually expand the mentorship program across the state.

Lee’s service experience has created great success in her life. Her message to FGCU students today: “Do service-learning not because it’s required, but because it opens up new doors for you and helps you discover who you are. I would have been cheated out of this amazing opportunity if I hadn’t done so much volunteering. It has shaped the life I live today.”