Sometimes people just need a break, and Kaia Kirk was one of them. After graduating from Jackson State University last spring with a degree in political science, Kirk took a year off to teach ESL classes at an elementary school in her hometown of Atlanta.
The pause served her well because, in February 2020, she was offered a full-ride scholarship to the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. In the latest U.S. News & World Report, the school ranked No. 1 in the nation for graduate education in public affairs for the eighth consecutive year.
“I was so excited. I called my mom and told her, and she screamed and cried,” said Kirk of her acceptance into the program that will allow her to receive a master’s and a doctorate degree in five years.
Enrolling at JSU in fall 2016, Kirk said she chose Jackson State, over North Carolina A&T, due to JSU’s golf program and Department of Political Science. Although the golf program succumbed to budget cuts in 2017, Kirk shared that she made the most of the outcome.
“I guess everything works out for a reason because, after that, I joined the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and became president,” she said.
As president, Kirk began researching NCAA guidelines and helping student-athletes prepare for an academic journey that included sports. “I wanted to make sure they knew what they were getting into as student-athletes.”
The McNair Scholar also gave kudos to JSU’s poli-sci department, which she described as a “close-knit” and “family-oriented” environment. “Anything that we needed, or anything that we struggled with, we all helped each other out.”
Kirk, who graduated with a 3.86 GPA, was able to complete her four-year program in three thanks to combined credits she received from her high school’s dual enrollment curriculum and studying abroad in South Africa as a JSU student.
While it was Kirk’s first trip overseas, she also revealed that it was the first time she felt her race or gender did not determine how she was treated. “I was just seen as American, not a black person or a woman first, just American.”
The alum further noted that she encountered black South Africans who were unaware of the struggle for equality that black Americans endured in the U.S.
“We shared some of the things that we went through. It was a learning experience for both of us. We basically discussed how far we’ve come since the civil rights movement and dealing with social and racial biases and how far (South Africa) has come since (the end of) apartheid,” she said.Overall, the summa cum laude graduate said she thoroughly enjoyed her JSU experience, which includes her work with various campus organizations like the Political Awareness and Involvement Committee in Delta Pi Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She was also a member of the university’s W.E.B. DuBois – Maria Luisa Alvarez Harvey Honors College, Pi Sigma Alpha (Political Science Honor Society), Alpha Lambda Delta Honor Society, JSU global ambassadors, JSU history club, and Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society.
In an essay that Kirk penned her senior year at JSU, she pondered life after her 2019 graduation, saying: “I have grown to dislike the question ‘What are your plans after graduation?’ because now that the time is almost here, the judgments I receive after giving my short spiel of everything I want to do in life following with ‘I really don’t know’ is unbearable,” she lamented.
Since then, Kirk has checked off her goal of becoming an English as a second language instructor. The Atlanta native teaches kindergarten through fifth-grade students at Asa G. Hilliard Elementary School in Georgia.
“I love working with kids from different cultures. I mainly work with children who speak Spanish and different African languages. My students are mostly of Hispanic and African origin,” she said.
What Kirk said she loves most about teaching is the reward of watching her students grasp the English language. “It’s like something clicks in their mind, and they’re able to do it on their own.”
Now, Kirk is well on her way to receiving another reward for her hard work. Her ultimate goal is to become a political researcher for the federal government, and her Syracuse acceptance brings her one step closer to that accomplishment.
In hindsight, it appears that Kirk has fleshed through any ambivalence about her future by taking the advice she suggested at the end of her 2019 essay, where she wrote: “There are so many dreams I want to come true, and time can only tell what the future holds, but living day-by-day and taking one step at a time has truly shown me that there is a beauty in not having it all together.”
Congratulations on having it together all along, Kaia Kirk.