Jessica Kissel: Learning to Help the World

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Jessica Kissell

GPC student and Delta Air Lines flight attendant Jessica Kissel already has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University, but now wants to earn an engineering degree. (Photo by Bill Roa)


By Kysa Anderson Daniels

It’s not every day that the graduate of an Ivy League college enrolls at an associate degree college. Yet, that’s exactly the path taken by Jessica Kissel, who last year enrolled in Georgia Perimeter College, where she’s beginning work toward an engineering degree to complement the Latin American Studies degree she received from Brown University five years ago.


It may seem unconventional, but, at 28, Kissel is used to doing things differently. As a youngster, she’d leave Arizona in the summer to meet up with her cousins in Vermont. There, they attended so-called Grandkid’s Camp and “played a lot of fun games” like sliding in chocolate pudding on an old shower curtain in their grandmother’s backyard. Nana, as her grandmother was called, also created Backwards Day, where everything on that particular day was done in reverse order, including eating. “Mostly we ate dessert first,” Kissel remembers. “We’d wake up to an ice cream sundae.”


Within her idyllic and playful upbringing, Kissel also became a consummate learner. She deferred attending Brown just after high school to spend a year in Peru as an exchange student. “I had taken four years of Spanish in high school, but I really didn’t get a chance to practice it a lot,” Kissel explains, noting that she became fluent while in Peru.


A civil engineer father and stay-at-home mom, who later became a school librarian, raised her and a younger brother—and kept them quite busy.


“My mom made sure that we always had something going on,” Kissel says.


Even today, Kissel manages a full schedule. When she’s not studying at Georgia Perimeter or taking ballet or crafting or learning sign language, she’s working as a Delta flight attendant, which she says gives her flexibility to attend school. Kissel also holds a position with Catholic Charities, where she started as a volunteer. Now, she works alongside colleagues such as Ben Leao in the Legal Orientation Program for Custodians, which educates custodians of unaccompanied minors awaiting trial in immigration court.


“She is a multifaceted individual,” Leao says, noting that Kissel speaks Spanish as though she were born in a Spanish-speaking country. Her communication skills are very effective.”


Kissel hopes to be effective in other ways, too. After graduating from Brown, she went to Panama, where she taught English and got involved with a transitional house-building organization called Techo and another nonprofit doing education work. These experiences exposed Kissel to extreme poverty and a lack of basic resources, such as clean water.


“That’s what got me interested in civil engineering; because of the importance of infrastructure and the difference that it can make,” she says. She plans to transfer to Georgia Tech for her bachelor’s and master’s after graduating from Georgia Perimeter. “I would be interested in working with communities to give them a good supply of water. If you can do something to make the world a better place, I think that you should.”


Courtney Byrne-Mitchell attended Brown with Kissel. She’s not surprised by her ambitions. “She is always up for new experiences and also connecting with people and giving back as part of that experience.”

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