‘It’s never too late,’ says GRCC student who turned her life around

A few years ago, Kelsey Sivertson felt stuck. Her childhood dreams of graduating from college and becoming a teacher had fallen apart.

Her first try at college hadn’t gone as she had hoped, and she dropped out, left with only bad grades and big debt.

"I felt as useless as an empty mall, locked into living beneath my potential," she says.
A few years later, she has paid off her college debt and is finishing up her college degree without taking out any loans. 

Sivertson credits Grand Rapids Community College for helping her turn her life around. She believes the college’s new $12 million Lakeshore Campus will provide those same opportunities to others.

She compares the transformation of a vacant department store into a state-of-an-learning learning space to what GRCC can do for students.

Sivertson shared her inspirational story at the campus’ Aug. 19 ribbon-cutting, celebrating the opening of the new campus in the former JCPenney department store in The Shops at Westshore mall.

"You have chosen to take this empty mall that once stood as a representation of failure, and repurposed it with promise and meaning and hope. And in doing that, you have vocalized your belief that people like me can do the same," Sivertson declared during her moving speech that drew a standing ovation.

The campus is housed in a 52,00-square-foot building that is a consolidated Lakeshore presence for GRCC, with both credit and career-focused certificate classes under one roof. Located on a bus line along the U.S. 31 corridor in Holland Township, the campus brings an opportunity to make a quality, affordable GRCC education more accessible.

Bad grades, big debt

The new Lakeshore Campus will give Ottawa County students a shorter drive time. It’s a 10-minute commute for people living in the Holland area rather than 35 minutes to class at GRCC’s main campus in downtown Grand Rapids.

“I see accessibility for those who get off work at 5 p.m.,” Sivertson says. “They’ll be able to make it to a 5:30 class with time to spare. Most importantly, I see hope. I see a community that believes in its residents, even those who, for a long time, have felt stuck.”

Sivertson used to be stuck.

Growing up, she loved school and reading, and dreamed of becoming a teacher. But her life changed at age 13, when her mother died of cancer. She had two younger siblings who were suddenly looking to her as a mother figure.

“I didn’t stop to think that I might not be mature enough to step up to the task of parenting, and for sure I didn’t know how much parenting I still needed,” Sivertson says. “At school, my grades swan-dived. I began to skip classes. My career dreams faded. I saw them as a relic of the life that had been taken from me.”

After her first unsuccessful effort to go to college, Sivertson got a job. A series of evening and receptionist jobs eventually led to a full-time administrative position at Lakeshore Advantage. At the organization that fosters economic development in Ottawa and Allegan counties, she was surrounded by colleagues and supervisors who wanted more for her.

‘It’s never too late’

“Growth was really the only option,” Sivertson says. “So, I looked around and found some mature people of faith. I asked them to be my mentors. And you know what they suggested? ‘Kelsey, go back to school.’”

She began paying off her remaining student loans and enrolled at GRCC.

“I tried again, one class at a time, one semester at a time,” she says. “It was slow. It was gradual. But today, what were once failures and incompletes are now A’s. Each class has taught me confidence. Each class has introduced me to a growing community of professors and guidance counselors who are eager to help people succeed.”

Sivertson says her return to higher education has been challenging as she balances her studies with full-time work. She has managed her demanding schedule by setting priorities with both her time and budget. But it was worth it, she says.

She is now less than a year away from graduating with her degree in pre-English literature. And, at age 30, Sivertson is once again believing that she can accomplish whatever goal she sets her sights on. 

“Until we breathe our last breath, it’s never too late to do what we have been called to do,” she says.


From department store to college, GRCC's new Lakeshore Campus opens
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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.