Five years ago, a graduate degree was not at the top of Kelly Newcomb’s list. Back then, she was a senior at the University of South Carolina. And it was only a few months before graduation when it hit her: Kelly wasn’t sure if public relations—the major she’d pursued for four years—was what she wanted to do.
Around the same time, she spotted a campus flyer advertising a trip to the Dominican Republic. It caught her attention, and within a few weeks, Kelly became part of a cultural exchange program operated by the Sister Island Project. She ventured with other USC students to the Dominican Republic to volunteer in Cruz Verde, a small town without running water or electricity and home to a poor education system.
Little did she know the 2014 journey would change her career plans and put her on a path to earning a graduate degree at Georgian Court University.
Learning and Growing
While in Cruz Verde, a translator proved to be helpful, as Kelly did not know Spanish. Still, she quickly went to work, teaching English in the schools, helping with farming, and immersing herself in the culture. She fell in love with the community of about 300 people who shared one small water well in the community center. She discovered that by being out of her comfort zone, she was learning a lot and truly challenging herself.
“Once I graduated from USC a few months later, I realized I really wanted to go back there,” she recalls. “I felt like I needed to bring something meaningful to the experience. I love sports, and I’ve been an athlete my whole life,” says the triathlete, who still enjoys hiking and is also a beach lifeguard.
She also began collecting used sports equipment that the kids of Cruz Verde could use. Kelly cleaned out her garage and launched a donation drive, collaborating with supporters of the track and field team she coaches. Around the same time, the Toms River native would soon find a way to pursue her professional calling and her passion for helping others. She researched graduate degrees in education and determined GCU’s teacher certification program would help her reach her goal.
Fast forward to 2017 as she pursued her graduate degree in the GCU School of Education. It felt like the right time to return to the Dominican Republic—solo.
“It was incredible,” recalls Kelly, who delivered the gently used sports items to local children.
“Although I don’t speak Spanish, I made such strong connections with the community — you can do this through sports, arts and crafts, and just by being present. You can make meaningful connections with others, even on a nonverbal level. Compassion is something that can be shown anywhere, on any level, in any culture or country.”
Kelly also distributed donated shoes to a few of the mothers in Cruz Verde.
“Some of the mothers started a walking group. They were so eager to get out and walk around the village for exercise,” says Kelly, who was happy that she even joined them. “In the late afternoons, the women and I would get together and walk about a mile or so. One day, we walked to the end of the village, picked up pineapples, and carried them home. That was a workout! This was a moment I truly cherished. I was able to observe through body language how happy the women were and how close the community of Cruz Verde is.”
Student or Teacher?
Today, Kelly believes those global experiences, paid for on her own dime, translate well into her new profession as an elementary school teacher. She began teaching in a fourth-grade class in Stafford Township in 2018. She’s working at a job she loves, and she still gets to use her PR knowledge, especially when it comes to public speaking, writing, and promoting creativity.
The Cruz Verde experience helped her to see education in a new light. Her experience in GCU’s graduate program helped make her newfound dream of teaching a reality.
“I see teaching and children in a special way: every child is capable of learning and growing. You just have to find out how,” says Kelly. “You have to find out what is interesting to kids, what they like or don’t like, and you don’t have to always connect with them verbally— sometimes it’s just a matter of watching and taking note of how they play, react, and engage with each other and with adults,” she says.
Story contributed by Kristen Fischer.