Personal Essay

Growing up as a latchkey kid equipped me with many positive traits. As an adult, I continue to personally, professionally, and academically define myself by those same traits. The trait that I most identify with is reliance. Being resilient requires good critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and flexibility. Resiliency has guided me through many of life’s challenges, including embarking on a new path, shifting the focus of my career, and making the decision to go back to school. This new path took root nine years while I chased a story that changed everything.

I was working my dream job as a photojournalist for a community newspaper in Leesburg, Florida. One day, I was assigned the yearly Thanksgiving turkey hand out story, which took place at the Salvation Army. As I navigated the line, I met a homeless man who captivated me with his stories of the hardship. Later that day, I found myself driving him back to his campsite to meet the rest of the residents. As we approached the site, the man whistled. Instantly, someone whistled back. And there, in the thick of the Florida scrub, sat six tents facing a fire pit in the middle.

Homeless Camp in Lake County, FL.

Over the following six months, I documented the lives of the camp’s residents. I followed each throughout their day, as they crushed cans, dumpster dived, and drank copious amounts of alcohol. Over time, each of the residents shared how they got out in the woods, what addictions they struggled with, and how their experience shaped their beliefs. I developed deep connections with the camp’s residents and developed a particularly special relationship with a man named Rocky. Rocky was in his mid to late 50’s and reminded me of my father. He showed me how someone can feel remorse, yet not have the strength to apologize for their misgivings.

Keri and Rocky

Shortly after the stories published, Rocky was diagnosed with throat cancer. With no one else to turn to, I guided him through many processes to get him back on his feet to live out his days as comfortably as possible. My involvement with Rocky changed my perspective drastically and my professional persona began to shift. I noticed a disconnect between uncovering the story and waiting for others to take action; this lead to the realization that I was limited by the scope of photojournalism. I wanted to be able to take a position on topics and help others in more direct ways. As I moved away from photojournalism, I redefined myself as a storyteller and felt empowered to engage with subjects in new ways and learn new skills such as video production and web development. During this time, newspapers across the country closed on a weekly basis, and opportunities for advancement all but vanished.

In 2012, I set new goals and left the news industry. I sought to merge my passion for connecting others through the power of narrative and service to others. The next five years proved to be an enormous period of professional and personal growth for me. I spent two of those years as an AmeriCorps volunteer. I worked with the Gandhi Brigade, teaching youth how to create media for social change. Working with youth gave me a sense of being a part of something bigger than myself, it was refreshing, and there was no going back. Consequently, I launched my journey as a communication scholar.

Today, as my daily actions continue to align with my fundamental principles. Activities I pursue, and the environments in which I thrive, reflect the deep sense of interconnectedness I share with others. One of the benefits of becoming a communications scholar is expanding worldview and gaining the tools to build equanimity among others. When we communicate, with the right intention and action, our stories have the power to transcend and transform. Intentional communication carries us beyond merely consuming information; it becomes the conduit through which we experience empathy and compassion for others. By connecting with others, we foster personal resilience, embrace life’s complexities and mobilize towards positive change. Our narratives begin and end our legacies; framing what we choose to leave behind.