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Unwilling to give up her dream, New Century Scholar Grace pursues a career in Archaeology

Unwilling to give up her dream, New Century Scholar Grace pursues a career in Archaeology

Armed with a fighting spirit, a well-deserved scholarship, and her black belt in Taekwondo, Kelly Grace is looking to break ground in a field that hasn’t always accommodated those with disabilities.

The 53-year-old Grace, a Hope, RI, native and recipient of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society’s 2024 New Century Transfer Scholarship for the state of Rhode Island, is one semester shy of graduating from the Community College of Rhode Island after an on-again, off-again journey that began more than three decades ago.

A General Studies major, Grace is pursuing a career in Archaeology after earning $2,250 in scholarship money and hopes to transfer to Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World – the only place in Rhode Island to earn a bachelor’s degree in Archaeology. 

PTK, the international honor society for two-year colleges, awards New Century Transfer Scholarships each year based on students’ academic accomplishments, leadership, activities, and how they extend their intellectual talents beyond the classroom. More than 2,200 students were nominated from more than 1,300 college campuses this year with only one winner selected from each state.

For Grace, who has suffered most of her life from numerous back injuries, including a slip and fall that resulted in surgery, and walks with a cane, the scholarship is validation that the decades-long journey is worth it – even when detractors tell her she can’t possibly pursue a career in Archaeology.

Echoing the words of CCRI professor Carol Panaccione, whom Grace considers a mentor, “I won’t let my disabilities get in the way of chasing my dreams.”

With a lifelong passion for history and archaeology that stems from years’ worth of family vacations and visits to historical landmarks, Grace graduated Bishop Keough Regional High School and first enrolled at CCRI in the Spring of 1990 to pursue law enforcement. Major back surgery forced her to switch gears. Grace stopped out within a year and didn’t return to school again until 2014 after working several jobs for nearly a decade and a half, including a stint as a travel agent and another job as a corporate tour guide at the historic Belcourt Castle in Newport, RI.

Grace had found happiness at Belcourt, guiding tours and spinning tales of the ghosts said to have haunted the mansion in the 19th century Gilded Age, until a slip and fell left Grace even worse than before. Unable to work for months, she found a new outlet during her recovery practicing Taekwondo under instructor Bill Mulvey, whom she credits with “pushing me to never give up and keep fighting.” 

When she returned to CCRI in 2014, she decided to pursue her true passion of Archaeology. CCRI, she says, was “very welcoming” with multiple avenues for adult learners looking to continue their education and seek help along the way. 

“I absolutely loved coming back to school as an adult,” she said. “You have a whole different mindset. You’re focused. You’re driven. You’re going after your goals. And that’s where I am now — chasing my dreams.”

Grace attended CCRI part time for the next six years until the Spring of 2020 when, shortly before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she fell terribly ill for several months. Was it COVID? Grace wasn’t sure; COVID testing hadn’t become widely available yet. The illness left her sidelined for so long she decided to stop out again until the Fall of 2022 long after in-person classes had finally resumed at the college.

Always a strong student — as evident by her scholarship award — Grace embarked on an “eye-opening” honors’ project in Panaccione’s Critical Thinking & Learning Strategies for College Studies course that further motivated her to pursue Archaeology despite her disability. The project focused on that exact subject and what options were available to people with disabilities. When calling local archaeological labs and non-profits, she was told several times she wouldn’t be hired if she was unable to meet certain physical requirements. 

“I wasn’t ready to give up,” she said. “This wasn’t going to be the end of my story.”

After several tires, Grace landed a volunteer position with the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP) in Bristol, headed by Executive Director and Principal Investigator Dr. D.K. (Kathy) Abbass, whose current project is searching for the HMS Gaspee and the HMS Endeavour, the former which was burned by colonists near what is now known as Gaspee Point in Warwick and the latter which sank in Newport Harbous — both in the 1700s. 

“Last summer, I went on an archaeological investigation with her team. It was amazing. It inspired me even further to chase my dreams,” Grace said. “I’m getting a hands on feel for what it’s like to be an archeologist.

“Dr. Abbass said she would love if it I would join her team and gave me the best advice in the end — ‘Don’t let anyone ever tell you no.’ That’s been my motto since then.”

As she wraps up her final two semesters at CCRI, Grace keeps busy with her volunteer work and her commitment to PTK in addition to her role as the Vice President of CCRI’s Italian Club. Everything she’s endured over the past three decades has kept her grounded and focused on the task at hand — earning her degree and pursuing a career she’s always been passionate about despite what others may think.

“I’m confident I can work in the field,” she said. “CCRI has always welcomed me back with open arms and helped me stay on track, get involved in the community, and ultimately find the right path toward the career I want. This has been a fulfilling journey.”

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