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June 27, 2013

Helping is happiness for runner turned nurse

By Patrick Elder



Cleveland State’s best and brightest shone with twice the light of graduation ceremonies past as valedictorian became co-valedictorians.
Kelly Zaleski
Kelly Zaleski and Justine Keenan (profiled in a previous edition of The Cleveland Stater) shared the honor and the duties of the award.

Split into two ceremonies, Keenan addressed graduates of the Fenn College of Engineering, the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and the College of Sciences and Health Professions during the morning ceremony. She was replaced by Zaleski in the afternoon, who delivered her speech to graduates of the Monte Ahuja College of Business Administration, the College of Education and Human Services, the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs and the School of Nursing.

While the concept of multiple valedictorians is alien to many, Zaleski – a four-year cross country runner – does not count herself among them. She’s experienced this before, only to an even greater degree when she was one of eight valedictorians in her high school graduating class.

“My high school class was really smart,” Zaleski said. “We couldn’t get above a 4.0, so we had eight people with a 4.0. We did one big speech.”

Zaleski was also named the valedictorian of the School of Nursing, from which she earned her diploma after her fifth year at the university – a year made necessary when she had a major epiphany.

“I always knew I wanted to do something medical,” Zaleski said. “Whenever people would get hurt while running I would want to help them. So I originally thought pre-med. But then I shadowed a nurse-practitioner and I liked the way nursing is more holistic. It looks more at the whole person, not just the specific diagnosis. It’s a more caring view, which I like.”

“She’s always willing to help,” said cross country head coach Joe Jaketich. “I never had to go to her and tell her to do something. She would always come to me and say, ‘Joe, how can I help?’”

Co-valedictorians

When her fifth year of school rolled around, her four years of athletic eligibility were used up. However, being the helper she is, she offered her services to Jaketich as a student assistant coach for the year. This way she was able to stay involved in the sport that is the biggest reason why a small town girl from Orrville, OH ended up enrolling at such an urban university.

“I was looking at all really small schools because I’m from a small town,” Zaleski said. “The head coach of the cross country team called and recruited me and got me to come to a scholarship day. I was dreading it. But I came by and loved it. I met the team and I really felt at home. Plus, I got to run for a Division I cross country team, so it all worked out.”

“When I recruit them I always tell my recruits to get involved,” Jaketich said. “When you get involved in something you seem to enjoy it better. I’m sure Kelly would have gotten involved anyway, but it was good to see that she was that involved, that good of a runner and able to keep up her grades.

“I recruited her in the first place because of her athletic ability, but also because of her grades. They go hand-in-hand. A lot of my runners have very good academic credentials.”

This isn’t the first valedictorian to run on Jaketich’s squad. In fact, he has now produced consecutive class valedictorians, as Zaleski’s former teammate, Brittany Elmlinger, was the valedictorian for Fall 2012.

“Not only were athletes the class valedictorians for two consecutive graduations, but they were also teammates,” Jaketich said. “I’ve never heard of that happening in my 40 years at Cleveland State.”

Zaleski runningZaleski’s coach was both an inspiration on the course and in her speech. She relayed his words of wisdom, given to her and her teammates, to the graduating class of spring 2013.

“It’s not going to be the exact times we get in our races or the grades on our tests that we remember, but the experiences we have and the moments we spend with other people,” Zaleski said. “Take each day and enjoy it. Impact the world and enjoy yourself.”

Not content to rest on her laurels for even a day, Zaleski heeded her coach’s words of wisdom and took off for the Dominican Republic the very next day after giving her commencement address. She traded in her scrubs and state-of-the-art medical facilities for a makeshift triage center in a one-room schoolhouse, providing medical care to people in great need.

“For a lot of these people this is the only medical attention that they get,” Zaleski said. “The organization works to try to see these villages at least once a year.”

This was Zaleski’s second trip to the Dominican Republic. What drove her there the first time was her insatiable desire to help those in need. The lessons she learned from those she was helping are what made her return.

“You almost get more from them, I think,” Zaleski said. “They have so little and everyone thinks that they’re the ones who need help, but then you see how happy they are and think, ‘maybe there’s something to be learned here.’ They have so little and just enjoy themselves regardless. As an American, it’s something very life-changing to see that you can be happy with so much less than what we have.”

Zaleski, back in Cleveland, will continue working at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. She hopes to one day become a nurse practitioner at a clinic, continuing to help those who need her help the most.