In her third-floor dorm room in Caffey Hall, Haley Kissell keeps a Bible verse on the far wall.
She hung it near the bottom of her bed because she wants to see it every morning when she wakes up. It’s from Colossians 3:12: “You are chosen, holy, and dearly loved.”
Like her own personal motto, “The best is yet to come,” the New Testament verse keeps her staying positive on her difficult academic path as a Presidential Scholar and Natural Sciences Fellow majoring in neuroscience and minoring in psychology.
“If you wake up positive,” she says, “you can bring positive energy throughout your entire day no matter what’s thrown at you.”
Kissell, a senior from Southern Pines, North Carolina, is one of two Extraordinary Leaders for the month of January.
She’ll graduate in May, and next fall, she’ll stay on campus to pursue a master’s degree in communication and business leadership. She’ll then embark on a career in global health, geared to reduce inequities and make health care more accessible to a greater number of people.
Kissell found her altruistic drive at HPU. And yet, she discovered HPU from someone working on the other side of the world.
Kissell had lived for four years in Southern Pines, a small town an hour south of campus, but she wasn’t familiar with HPU.
Her dad was.
In the spring of 2018, U.S. Army Col. Douglas Kissell was stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan, for a six-month tour when he came across a magazine article about HPU. He liked what he read, and he sent a screen shot of the article to his college-bound daughter.
She liked what she read, too.
Kissell has always believed in the idea of “God, family, country.” President Dr. Nido Qubein says proudly and often that HPU is a God, family and country school. Those three words are part of who she is.
Kissell is a member of an American nomadic subculture that follows the career of a parent who chose to serve. Her dad has served in the Army for 23 years, and her dad and her mom, Melissa, have raised Kissell and her two siblings on military bases nationwide. For years, they moved constantly, from post to post.
By 13, Kissell had moved seven times. In 2014, her family moved to Southern Pines to be close to her dad’s next assignment at Fort Bragg. They have been there since.
Until she got the screen shot from her father, she had never heard of the campus an hour north from her home.
In August 2018, when her dad returned from Afghanistan, Kissell was a rising high school senior. He had researched HPU online while in Afghanistan, and a month before he returned, he saw that HPU was holding an open house.
“I say you just go,” her dad told her during their weekly Facetime chat. “It doesn’t hurt.”
Kissell went with her mom, Melissa. They toured the campus, went to workshops and listened to Dr. Qubein talk about the importance of patriotism, standing up for what you believe in, and going after something bigger than yourself.
Kissell was captivated by what she heard. As an 18-year-old who grew up going to church every Sunday and being surrounded by soldiers in uniform and American flags rippling in the breeze, Kissell knew HPU was for her.
“This is where I’m attending,” she told her mom.
She applied early decision. HPU, she knew, was the only school she wanted to attend.
Dr. Jackson Sparks, an assistant professor of biology, heard from Kissell even before she stepped on campus.
Kissell was interested in the Natural Sciences Fellows program, and Sparks supervised the program with Dr. Meghan Blackledge, an assistant professor in chemistry. Weeks before she came to campus, Kissell emailed Sparks frequently about the program and the possibilities.
Sparks could sense Kissell’s laser focus on academics. He saw she never received a B in high school. He also saw she earned an associate’s degree from Sandhills Community College a few weeks before receiving her high school diploma from Union Pines High School.
She went to the local community college near her home because she wanted to challenge herself. Two years ago, when she came to HPU, she had already earned enough credits to be classified as a junior. She’s now a senior, a leader in the Natural Sciences Fellows program.
Sparks didn’t hesitate in selecting her. He’s watched her run meetings, and he saw how students like and respect her. She’s friendly and smiles all the time, Sparks says. But underneath her warm exterior is an insatiable drive to excel.
“She authentically enjoys the hard work of science,” Sparks says. “She does it without complaining, and she likes it to be hard. What kind of people are like that? The military.”
Kissell still keeps the letters on a flash drive.
She received them last fall from elementary school students who received the science kits that members of the Biology Club and the Natural Sciences Fellows created.
In the parking lot of the High Point University Community Center, members put together 1,300 science kits. Those kits contained what everything the students needed to make a lava lamp — from a red food dye to a bottle of vegetable oil.
The kits also included applesauce, granola bars and a small bottle of hand sanitizer. The food and the hand sanitizer were gifts.
The kits, no bigger than a shoebox, wowed students like Ronda. In her seven-sentence letter written in purple ink and decorated with seven red hearts, she wrote: “My grandma really appreciates it. It was fun being a scientist. I had such a good time! Thanks again for supporting us and our discovery.”
Kissell loves those letters.
“With my dad in the military, I grew up surrounded by this idea of service, and I looked to provide service in other ways, especially with children,” she says. “And being able to provide happiness and ways to uplift others, that’s something I strive for.”
This year, Kissell serves also as a peer mentor and helps 14 freshmen navigate their first year through college. She also had represented the Biology Club for 18 months in the Student Government Association, and for the past year, she has been the secretary for the Neuroscience Club.
When the club gets together, they study. They dig into diverse subjects such as religion, philosophy, politics and economics. In February 2020, with the help of Drs. Kristen Ackerman and Michael Grider, club members visited the National Institute of Health.
“That was super cool,” Kissell says. “Just being surrounded by people who are so into what they do was a source of inspiration. They wanted to find it and drive it and make an impact on the world.”
When asked about Kissell’s busy schedule at HPU, Sparks laughs.
“She’s only been here two years,” says Sparks, her academic advisor. “It feels like she’s been here for four.”
Kissell got interested in neuroscience because of softball. At 15, she received her first concussion when she was hit in the head. Six weeks later, she suffered another concussion when she was hit the face while sitting in the stands.
Her concussions and a broken right leg caused her to miss two seasons of softball. She broke her leg during a game following a collision at home plate when she was the catcher. She was crushed. She had been playing baseball since she was 5, and she played for three years on a travel team in softball.
So, she took up golf. She wanted to channel her competitiveness and play with her father. She also began looking for ways to see the positive in her two concussions. While visiting doctors , she discovered neuroscience.
“My motto is ‘The best is yet to come,’ and if you’re always searching, something will come to you,” she says. “I didn’t know what would come, but I knew I’d get through it. Now, look where I am today.”
She’s reminded of that every time she’s inside the Wanek School of Natural Sciences.
She’ll be studying on the third-floor balcony taking in the the vibrancy of the well-lit lobby, or she’ll walk past large classrooms behind walls of glass and watch students working on something with a professor nearby.
What she sees inspires her.
“It shows you how much people strive for excellence,” she says. “So many people here want to change the world. You can’t help but put your best foot forward.”