“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough,” Kelsey Plankeel tells me as she cracks open one of those huge smiles that seems to always be on her face. “I don’t know who said it, but I love that quote,” she continues to say while laughing at her inability to recall that bit of extraneous information. The quote belongs to Mae West, the late actress known for her extraordinary energy and will. Both these characteristics are present in Kelsey. She is a child at heart, a spontaneous free-spirit, with the only thing restraining her being her love for everyone she meets.

Kelsey hails from Lynchburg, Virginia, a town she says she loves despite the fact that most others in her generation hate it.

“There’s not much to do there,” she says. It soon becomes clear to me when she says this, she is echoing other’s opinions and not her own. Kelsey loves the outdoors and finds enjoyment in hiking and whitewater kayaking—in an age where most kids opt for the comfort of their room and believe that technology is a precursor to entertainment.

In a lot of ways, Kelsey is out of place in this era. She tells me that coming to Wheaton has made her appreciate the South even more. For one, she says, there are no hills or any places to hike in suburban Chicago. She also notes the cultural differences between the South and the North. Attending school in Chicagoland has made her appreciate Southern hospitality as well as the culture of church attendance. Most importantly, she adds, “That’s where my family is.” As I begin to type down her response, she interrupts, “And my dog! My family and my dog.”

Kelsey describes her number one priority as her family. When I ask for the three things she would save from her house if it went up in flames—besides her family or dog—she answers that she would save her family photo albums and a stuffed bunny from her childhood. As she racks her brains for the final item, she finally answers, “something that mattered a lot to my parents or my younger sisters.”

Her family has also has been very influential in her life. Kelsey joins a legion of others in her family who have attended Wheaton—her parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. She is currently studying to be a physician’s assistant—she tells me she got interested in medicine because her dad is a doctor. She makes sure to tell me that she truly is interested in medicine, and she doesn’t want to study medicine just because her dad did.  But to me, her childhood dream of being a storm chaser sounds much more like Kelsey—free and doing whatever she wants, wherever she wants.

It is sometimes hard to reconcile this image of Kelsey as a girl steeped in tradition with the image I have of her as a spontaneous, unorganized force of nature. She says that “pranking” is her favorite thing to do in her free time. For Kelsey, this includes everything from sending potatoes to other student’s CPOs, putting vegetables in backpacks of unsuspecting peers, and “turtling” backpacks—a process which consists of turning a person’s backpack inside out, putting the contents back into the inside-out backpack, and then zipping it up.

When I ask Kelsey to describe herself, one of the things she said really stuck out to me: she is empathetic to a fault. Empathy is both what motivates and hinders her. In the year and a half she has been on Wheaton College’s campus, she has participated in club lacrosse, intramural sports, worked for the club hockey team, has been a student ambassador who communicates with donors, taught English in Chinatown, and been on the Record (student newspaper) staff. Most of these activities have been genuine interests that make her happy, but teaching English in particular has been driven solely by a desire to help others. In addition, even if all these activities are interests, you would think at some point her schedule would be so full that she would just have to say no. But Kelsey always wants to help others, even if it comes at her own expense.

Kelsey has so many interests that I couldn’t help but ask her again exactly why she wants to be a physician’s assistant.

She tells me her current dream job would be “travelling and leading others on adventures” and she is so talented that it seems odd that she IMG_3755aspires to be a physician’s assistant rather than a doctor. She tells me it’s easier to have a family as a physician’s assistant.

Therein lies the paradox of Kelsey Plankeel. While her love of people motivates her, it also hinders her from doing many of the things she is capable of. Empathetic, to a fault. At the end of the interview, she wishes me luck and thanks me with the huge smile that seems to always be on her face; one only exceeded by the size of her heart.