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STLCC Student Commencement Speaker Message: It's Never Too Late

Friday, May 17, 2024


St. Louis Community College will celebrate commencement Sunday, May 19, at Chaifetz Arena on the campus of Saint Louis University, marking both small and monumental accomplishments for graduating students. There are as many stories as there are graduates, and with this special series, we celebrate all of our 2024 graduates with stories about four students who demonstrate in their own way what it takes to earn a degree. A new story will publish each day the week of May 14-17, leading up to STLCC's commencement ceremony. This is the final story in the series.

Kayla Bailey holding easel and paintbrushWhen Kayla Bailey graduated high school in 2004, she wasn’t certain what the next phase of her life would look like. Flash forward 20 years and Bailey is preparing to deliver the student commencement speech for St. Louis Community College at Chaifetz Arena this Sunday.

It was not an easy road to get here. She, herself, calls her transformation “kind of absurd.”

Bailey admits that by the time she finished high school, she was a bit “checked out.” She wasn’t certain why, maybe it had something to do with the bouts of depression that she suffered? Regardless, she gave college a try. First one community college, then another local school. Neither was a good fit. Art excited her, but she couldn’t seem to connect with other subjects.

The valleys of depression got lower and more frequent. A doctor confirmed the diagnosis. Bailey had depression and was treated with medication. However, the pills didn’t help. In fact, they made the depression worse.

“You start to feel like you’re spiraling and nothing is going to help you get out of it,” says Bailey.

The Wrong Diagnosis

Finally, about five years later, Bailey decided to see a different doctor. And the diagnosis was different. She wasn’t depressed. She had bipolar disorder. With the correct prescribed medication, Bailey slowly started to regain focus.

“Right away, after just a month or so, it evened me out a lot. It was great,” Bailey said. “But at the same time, you kind of feel like you got cheated, because all of those years that I was failing at things, it felt like maybe that wasn’t actually my fault.”

She certainly wasn’t alone. Each year it’s estimated that around 7 million adults in the U.S. experience bipolar disorder. This equates to about 2.8% of the adult population. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 4.4% of all Americans will experience the disorder at some point in their lives. And most of the people who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder are between the ages of 18 and 29. In other words, Bailey’s age.

Bailey worked a series of part-time jobs in photo developing, video rentals, bookstore. But something still was missing for her. None of that work formed a connection. In retrospect, it’s clear that all those jobs involved some type of art and culture – film, movies, books. It wasn’t until she started working as a nanny with her three-year-old niece that something started to click, just a little. Bailey was excited about showing Amelia the world around her. Teaching Amelia about books, crafts and art seemed natural, easy, fulfilling.

“That was the thing that really probably changed my trajectory a lot,” Bailey said. “I had this person that I really cared about. And that’s when I realized how important art was to me and my life.”

Art. Was this what Bailey was meant to do? Really?

Returning to School

Just then, the pandemic hit. Everything stopped. But it gave Bailey a chance to think. Could she pursue art as a career? She enjoyed showing her young niece how to try art; could she become an art teacher?

So, when the pandemic eased up in 2022, she decided to try just one summer art class – digital photography – at St. Louis Community College. The class – and the other students – was more than she could have hoped.

Kayla Bailey making bonsai pot“All of those people were so engaged. They asked so many questions and we even wound up going out together after class, sometimes to take photos,” Bailey said. “It was just the kind of community that I didn’t ever experience at school before. It was so easy here at STLCC.”

From that point on, Bailey was all in. She took more classes. She was making friends, she felt connected, she was excited to keep learning. As she puts it, it just “felt right.”

The first instructor that Bailey really related to was Sarah Paulsen, an adjunct faculty in the Fine Arts department.

“I had the honor of teaching Kayla in two classes. In these classes I saw her dedication to excellence and the seriousness she brought to her work both in ideas and execution,” Paulsen said. “Kayla is an incredibly hard-working artist with meticulous craftmanship and a drive to make stunning artworks. She really is remarkable.”

While the courses were going well, returning to classrooms after nearly 18 years away was challenging.

“It was really scary,” Bailey said. “I hadn’t been in a classroom environment in a really long time, and the thought of people critiquing my art and judging me that directly was something that hadn’t happened to me in a long time. So, I was really nervous about that.”

Excelling at STLCC

Not everything was perfect, of course. Bailey was still dealing with her anxiety and being bipolar. The additional stress from school was something she hadn’t had to deal with for years, and it could lead to feeling overwhelmed at times.

But for Bailey, the confidence that came with each achievement was very powerful. And she had a lot of achievements. Joining and becoming president of the Clay Club, a 4.0 GPA, acceptance into the Honors program, and now, commencement speaker. Another of her instructors, Norleen Nosri, is very happy that Bailey is being recognized for her accomplishments.

“Kayla is an exceptional student who has consistently demonstrated dedication, creativity, and leadership throughout her time at STLCC,” said Nosri, who is an assistant professor of Fine Arts. “Her commitment to her craft and her willingness to take on challenging tasks have set her apart as a standout student in the Ceramics program.”

Nosri encouraged Bailey to get involved in a project during this school year that allows her to leave her mark on STLCC forever. Forest Park President Julie Fickas, EdD, wanted new murals painted on the walls in the O-level tunnels on campus. Bailey would be the lead artist. That meant coordinating the visions of multiple artists and working with volunteers to paint the walls.

“The mural project was awesome,” Bailey said. “I’m really proud of how it worked out and it also gave me a lot more leadership. It was just a really rewarding experience.”

Bailey has been reflecting on all these experiences as she prepares to speak to her fellow graduates at commencement this Sunday. Looking back on her time at St. Louis Community College, Bailey says her message will focus on the theme of not counting yourself out.

“I’ve been through a lot of really hard times and there were times when I wasn’t sure that I could keep going,” she said. “But it’s never too late to follow your dreams – or come up with a new dream. Now that I’m here and succeeding, it’s opening these new doors that I didn’t even think were possible a couple of years ago.”

Bailey gets emotional when she thinks about how far she has come since graduating high school in 2004.

“I think that since it’s been such a long time, people had maybe sort of given up on that idea for me. And now, coming back, it’s just been exciting to maybe become the person that they wanted me to be.”

Bailey plans to attend Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville to continue her work in art, with a goal of eventually earning a master’s degree in education. That way, she can teach children – or perhaps college students – just like the mentors she’s had at St. Louis Community College.

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