July 01, 2021
Alumni Spotlight: Kelsey Thompson
By Bill Brink
When Kelsey Thompson left Carnegie Mellon University, she had a plan. She would work somewhere for a certain amount of time before graduate school, after which she would work at the State Department, and on and on.
Her plan, as plans are wont to do, did not pan out. For someone with the drive and ambition of a CMU student, this could have been a crushing blow, and it was hard for Thompson. But that difficulty gave her some perspective.
“I wish I could have told my younger self that it’s OK just to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and keep engaging curiously and opening yourself to opportunities,” said Thompson, who graduated in 2015 with majors in International Relations and Politics and Hispanic Studies and minors in Business Administration and Visual Art. “Where I’m at now is somewhere where I’d absolutely wanted to be, but it took a lot to get here, a lot of uncertainty. You will get to where you need to be and what is meant for you over time.”
Currently, Thompson is the Director of Data Analytics for COVIDCheck Colorado, a social benefit enterprise of Gary Community Investments created to increase access to COVID-19 tests and vaccines. She is also pursuing her Master’s Degree in Law and Diplomacy from The Fletcher School at Tufts University.
“I’m crafting my own second field of study that’s focused on the intersection of law and neuroscience,” Thompson said. “I’m looking at the ways in which we can use law to address conflict that also considers the impact of conflict on the brain.”
When Thompson enrolled in Carnegie Mellon, she thought she wanted to be an architect, but she appreciated the university’s breadth of academic options. She loved her classes with former IPS Professor Colin Clarke, who taught courses such as “The Future of Warfare” and “Grand Strategy in the United States.” She also loved her International and Subnational Security course with Dr. Anna Pechenkina.
“I thought it was really fascinating, talking about game theory,” Thompson said. “She just did an incredible job of stimulating discussion of theory, why people go to war, why states go to war, and introducing frameworks for thinking about that. It helped fuel my interest for when I went to grad school.”
Thompson took her work in Hispanic Studies for a spin with a semester abroad in Chile. She stayed with a local family, enrolled in a local university, and participated in a teaching internship on the side. Thompson made friends from all over the world, including one from Argentina with whom she's close to this day.
“It was a really wonderful experience,” Thompson said. "It's absolutely informed what I do and study today.”
After graduation, Thompson joined Burger King’s leadership development program analyzing franchisee profitability in their Central America department, and here the plan began to change. She suffered a concussion and had to take medical leave, and the program did not pan out after that. Knowing she’d only have so many chances at a fresh start, she moved to Denver on a whim and started working for a nonprofit called OpenWorld Learning, a computer education program.
“I was doing after-school STEM projects that were in areas where they don’t have STEM curriculum in their schools because they’re Title I schools,” she said. “I never really anticipated teaching being my full career, but I’m a hard worker, I needed a job, and I knew that I really enjoyed the realm of education.”
Thompson taught art and computer science at two different schools in Denver before beginning her postgraduate education. Inspired by her courses with Drs. Clarke and Pechenkina, Thompson entered graduate school wanting to study security and peace. During her time at Tufts, she has narrowed that focus to the decisions surrounding going to war, the impact of trauma on the brain, and how to prevent conflict in the future. Her thesis will examine the intersection of neuroscience and transitional justice mechanisms such as truth commissions, bodies tasked with revealing and resolving government wrongdoing.
“I’ve always been interested in the nexus of cultures and why people engage in conflict,” she said. “War is such an extreme mechanism of conflict and genocide. Why do people do these things? Why do people hurt each other?”
Thompson was working as a data analyst for another nonprofit in Denver when, in August 2020, the people who placed her there reached out about COVIDCheck. The role allowed her to transition from performance metrics for businesses to strategy and community involvement, and she worked about thirty hours a week remotely while attending Tufts.
"I was looking at equity measures and what parts of the community we've been involved in, and how we want to strategize outreach to other portions of the community," she said. "It's really cool. It feels very meaningful. I feel like it definitely ties in knowledge from other areas, which I appreciate, bringing in understanding of policy and economics and the way certain community members are impacted by a public health crisis that other parts of the community maybe aren't affected by or have more resources for."
COVIDCheck transitioned to providing testing services only at the end of June, but Thompson will stay on through December. After graduate school, she might pursue a PhD to further study conflict law and neuroscience. She is also considering working for a think tank in Washington, DC, examining that intersection further. This determination and passion, she said, has some roots in Carnegie Mellon.
“It just fosters this infinite curiosity and drive to keep learning because of how inspirational it is to see everyone else around you doing that, too,” she said. “It’s informed the way that I’m pursuing my graduate program as well as being open to different career opportunities and not lasering in on one path. It was really enriching of a time for me, but it also changed my view on my own future and how I want to pursue my own aspirations.”
Thompson advised students to take courses that don’t necessarily align with their chosen field of study.
“With international affairs, you’re talking about societies, and societies are complex systems that don’t simply involve diplomacy and the State Department and the Defense Department and government institutions,” she said. “It involves the arts, it involves education, it involves healthcare. Taking other courses is so useful, and CMU is pretty flexible about that.”