Globe-trotting Girl Scout leader: Kelsey Zubke is making a difference at home and abroad
WORTHINGTON -- Kelsey Zubke isn't one to shy away from a challenge, whether that means exploring a new culture, learning a foreign language, enrolling in an Ivy League university or returning to small-town Minnesota after years abroad. Perhaps it...
WORTHINGTON - Kelsey Zubke isn’t one to shy away from a challenge, whether that means exploring a new culture, learning a foreign language, enrolling in an Ivy League university or returning to small-town Minnesota after years abroad.
Perhaps it’s only natural, then, that this 27-year-old’s latest adventure is helping other young women develop their own life skills, set goals and plan for their futures with greater confidence.
As a Community Partner Specialist for the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys “ConnectZ” program, Zubke has lived and worked in Worthington since October 2013, teaching and mentoring roughly 120 girls from Worthington’s middle and high schools each week.
Today, instead of bicycling for miles on dusty roads in Burkina Faso, she steers her Chevy Equinox down Oxford Street as she aims to satisfy one of her passions: public service.
And while the sociable Zubke has no trouble making friends of all ages and backgrounds wherever she goes, she also has a guaranteed lure: ready access to Girl Scout cookies.
Hailing from Hayfield Zubke grew up in the Dodge County community of Hayfield, a town of about 1,300 people. She believes her childhood, which included shuttling between the homes of her divorced parents and interacting with siblings and step-siblings since age 5, contributed to her overall adaptability and acceptance of varied circumstances.
“I seem to thrive in situations where I have to recreate myself,” said Zubke, whose native intelligence and curiosity about the world were evident from a young age.
“I inherited a large National Geographic collection, and I always wanted to travel and get as far away from my small town as I could,” she reflected. “I worked hard because I knew academics could get me there.”
Before graduating from Hayfield High School in 2006, Zubke had taken online Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) classes through Southwest State University.
“I originally thought of going to Iowa State or Southwest State because of that,” she said.
But a mailing from Yale University caught Zubke’s eye, and the ambitious teenager threw her hat in the extremely competitive Ivy League admissions ring.
“I applied, but I really didn’t think I’d get in,” she modestly admitted. “Yale’s acceptance rate was about six percent - so when I was admitted there, I just had to go.”
Yale years Once settled on campus in New Haven, Conn., Zubke set about pursuing paths to see the world. Although she had studied Spanish - a language that aids her greatly in her current position - throughout high school, she still needed to satisfy Yale’s foreign language requirement.
Instead of continuing with Spanish, Zubke opted for something quite different.
“I really wanted to learn Arabic,” she recalled. “I thought there were a lot of misconceptions about Arabs and Islam, so I wanted to know more about the situation and current events.”
Her language study led her to spend the second semester of her sophomore year, and the following summer, in Jordan.
“I’d always wanted to study abroad, and Jordan was on the only Middle Eastern country available for off-campus study then,” Zubke shared.
Upon returning, Zubke, an economics and international studies major, was somewhat undecided about her post-college plans - and the U.S. economic downturn didn’t make job prospects for college graduates look promising - so she punted, applying for and receiving a scholarship grant from the U.S. State Department.
“I was in Damascus, Syria, to study Arabic from August 2009 until August 2010,” she said. “I’d intended to stay longer, but I’d crossed the border to go on a vacation and then couldn’t get back into the country.”
One week later, Syria deported all foreigners, students in the country were ordered to leave and war broke out shortly thereafter. The Arab Spring occurred in April 2011.
“I was just going to stay in Syria as long as my grant money lasted, but the timing worked out well,” Zubke said. She resumed her senior year at Yale in September 2010 and graduated in May 2011.
That summer, she took “the most epic of road trips” with two college friends “who’d never left the metropolitan areas of New York or Connecticut,” according to Zubke.
She picked them up at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport and they proceeded to drive west, heading for the Rocky Mountains, the desert, Las Vegas and more.
“We weren’t even to Pierre, S.D., yet and one of my friends wondered where the mountains were,” laughed Zubke. “I said, ‘We’re in South Dakota, we’ve got hours of nothing to look at before we see any mountains.’”
Peace Corps calls A requirement of the grant that enabled Zubke’s time in Syria was that she work at a post with national security interests for a year, most of which were with the FBI, the CIA or the Department of Homeland Security.
“My Arabic was pretty good by then - I was ranked ‘Advanced High,’ so I could have started translating classes - but I decided to work it off through the Peace Corps,” said Zubke.
She was assigned to Burkina Faso, West Africa, a country with an active Al Qaeda presence, thus an approved location for her year of service.
That assignment, which began in October 2011, led to a fourth language for Zubke - French.
“French is the Colonial language of Burkina Faso, so I had six weeks of language training in that before going,” said Zubke. “I also know a little bit of their local language, Moore, but that’s it.”
If Zubke had thought Hayfield was small and remote, she soon learned otherwise.
“The village where I lived had about 500 people and was 25 miles off a main road - from which I had to travel by bicycle with all my belongings,” said Zubke.
“I was assigned to work in the agricultural sector, but the village had no co-op, so I worked at the middle school with youth and on educating people about malaria and HIV prevention.”
The 25-miles-by-bike to any contemporary measure of creature comforts was daunting, so Zubke spent the bulk of two years - minus a three-week U.S. vacation in between - living in the family compound of the village’s Imam, sleeping on a woven mat (“like the ones you see at Top Asian Foods here,” she noted) and having limited contact with the outside world.
“Yes, I did get discouraged, but the wonderful thing about the Peace Corps is that it tears you down at first, but then you learn to become very independent and responsible for yourself,” said Zubke.
“It’s a sink or swim situation,” she said, recalling how she had hauled her trunk to the village on the back of her bike (“I fell a whole bunch of times,” she said) and was grateful to get a bucket for her use at one point.
Girl Scout pride With little to do in her downtime in Burkina Faso but read and write letters, Zubke struck up a terrific pen pal relationship with her 80-ish grandmother, Marilyn Johnson, then of Lake Mills, Iowa.
“She was talking about moving into a retirement home but her health was still good, so even though she needed a little help with housework and cooking, I thought it was a good opportunity for her to move in with me for a couple of years,” Zubke said.
So when Zubke plotted her return to the U.S., seeking employment where she felt she could make a positive difference, bringing her grandma along for the ride was part of the deal.
“I thought I could be a lot more effective in a community that resembles the one I grew up in,” observed Zubke. “I know the culture, the language and I can understand people’s motives and behavior.”
Zubke was hired as a Community Partner Specialist assigned to Worthington under the auspices of the ConnectZ program sponsored by the Girls Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys.
“The program has been operating since 2006, and existed in Worthington for three years before I came on board, but the first person working here lived in Rochester and only commuted here once a week,” explained Zubke.
ConnectZ has 13 people total working in roles like Zubke’s across Minnesota - three in Rochester, one each in Austin and Mankato and the remainder in the Twin Cities. Zubke’s immediate supervisor, with whom she is in contact at least weekly, is in Rochester; Zubke attends an in-person staff meeting each month.
“I find it really rewarding,” said Zubke of her position, in which she currently works with 80 Worthington Middle School girls and 40 from Worthington High School, meeting weekly and sometimes more often with them.
“They’re all considered Girl Scouts, with yearly memberships and the ability to earn badges, but the curriculum is different - there’s less focus on First Aid, camping and arts and crafts and more of a focus on developing themselves,” she detailed.
“I work with them on good decision making, assertiveness training, building healthy relationships and future planning and goal-setting,” Zubke listed.
“We encourage academic excellence, but it’s not my responsibility to check on their grades,” she added. “They have to be academically eligible to participate in Girl Scouts, and that’s nice because it gives them further motivation to keep up with their school work.”
While Zubke is quick to note her girlhood days weren’t nearly as difficult as those of some of the Girl Scouts she advises and mentors, her upbringing as a child of divorced parents, and the first in her family to graduate from college, gives her insight and empathy to their lives.
“I was fortunate to have a lot of mentors to help me along, but sometimes I can’t believe I even completed my application to Yale,” Zubke expressed. “I want to help these girls not have the same struggles I had at their ages.”
Zubke takes her Girl Scouts on field trips to area colleges, among other places, and in April they will attend a Latina conference headlined by Latina professionals in Fridley.
And in case you haven’t gotten your Girl Scout cookie fix yet this year, Zubke assures the cookie season lasts until the end of March.
“You can look up cookie sale spots at cookielocator.littlebrownie.com,” shared Zubke. “And there are Girls Scouts selling cookies at the Worthington Walmart entrances each Saturday.”
Besides knowing four languages, the Trefoil-favoring Zubke is also privy to hot Girl Scout cookie trivia.
“Thin Mints are the most popular in Minnesota,” she revealed. “But Samoas are the best sellers in Worthington.”
Up to date Zubke takes her grandma to the Worthington Area YMCA at least three times each week; Marilyn does aquanastics, while Zubke attends fitness classes or does cardio workouts.
“We also volunteer together in Adult Basic Education classes four times a week-we both help with English and citizenship classes, and I do some digital literacy classes, too,” Zubke said.
In the summers, Zubke enjoys biking and kayaking, but after having read 300+ books during her Burkina Faso stint, Zubke prefers “face-to-face” time with people.
“I like visiting friends, eating pie and drinking coffee, talking, or going out to eat or cooking with friends,” she noted.
Zubke doesn’t wear her international experiences or Ivy League education on her sleeve, but she is happy to talk about her life and learn from others when the opportunity arises.
“I like to just be Kelsey,” she said. “Worthington is very comfortable - not as big as some places, but not as small as others, and I’ve seen the whole spectrum.
“I’m on my own life path, and everyone else is on theirs, so I’ve got to let others be who they are and let me be me,” she added.
“That’s how I try to live.”