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Empowerment through representation: Kelli Burns connects with students to create welcoming environment

Finding time to connect with students outside of teaching and research, associate professor Kelli Burns strives to be a friendly asset to students. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/USF

This story is part of a continuing series that features women leaders at USF during Women’s History Month.

Director of undergraduate programs for the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications Kelli Burns believes the shift from high school to college can be daunting and swallow the confidence of students to pursue their goals and connect with the USF community.

Between 100-person lecture halls and the pressure to meet strict professors’ standards, Burns said it can be easy for students to feel lost while being on their own for the first time.

“You come to USF, and I think a lot of students might feel like … a number here,” she said. “There’s not always that community feeling that they might have experienced in high school.”

As an associate professor, Burns makes an effort to construct a communal environment in her classroom with simple acts like remembering all of her students’ names.

“Personally, I want to know every student’s name in my class,” she said. “I’ve had [classes that were] just under 90 students, but pretty much [I knew] everybody’s name.”

House calls to different on-campus living communities through USF’s Faculty Fellow Program is another way Burns helps students find comfort amid the transition.

Burns attempts to break the professional barrier between professors and students and encourages them to make personal connections during the meetings. Whether it’s answering questions about university life or how to succeed academically, Burns wants to make sure students have a strong support system.

“A lot of students might also be intimidated by their professors, and just not quite sure how to get the help that they need,” she said. “We just want to make sure that they know that people do care about them here at this university.”

Dean of Students Danielle McDonald said Burns’ commitment to student engagement displays her genuine intent to make the USF campus a more welcoming environment.

“When I think of her, I think of how she gives her time to our students in and out of the classroom,” McDonald said. “She is invested in their success whether they are in her school or not, and she creates community in real life along with the digital world. She is one of my favorite people.”

Despite having a desire for making all students feel welcomed, Burns is especially passionate about making young women feel empowered and confident.

Gender discrimination is something Burns has personally experienced and has had to cope with the harmful effects of. Although she is hopeful for change in the future, she feels it is particularly important to help young women succeed in leadership positions.

“It is hard for me to understand how women still face gender discrimination after decades of progress,” Burns said. “I am encouraged when I see women leading this university, including former President Judy Genshaft, current Interim President Rhea Law and [former President] Betty Castor, who was before my time.”

To support young women who may be experiencing a difficult transition to college life, Burns has taken on the role of the Gamma Phi Beta sorority public relations adviser. Being an adviser to the same sorority she was in during her undergraduate days, Burns said it has been a pleasure assisting in building leadership skills in young women.

“I feel strongly about supporting young women and building the confidence of women,” she said. “I believe that sororities are wonderful opportunities for building leadership opportunities or for building leadership skills.”

Part of her efforts as an adviser include bonding with the members at the sorority house and helping them find opportunities in their desired career paths and collaborating with local philanthropies to organize fundraisers.

The charity Burns and her sorority team up with reflects the goal setting and leadership values she expressed are important to instill into the youth. Called Girls on The Run, the philanthropy aims to teach young girls in the Tampa Bay community to progressively run a 5K.

Burns said the value in the incremental progress of running is it teaches girls at a young age that they can do anything when they organize their goals.

“If you never thought you could run a 5K, then you run a 5K. You can tell yourself that you could have the competence to do anything,” she said. “Take that philosophy and apply it to everything in your life, whether it’s your schoolwork or a job you’re trying to pursue, or any other endeavor.”

With the young women Burns works with inside and outside of her classroom, she is optimistic about the future they will build as society continues to improve.

“The young women in my classes are inspiring,” she said. “Many of them tend to be leaders on their project teams because they are skilled at organizing their fellow students.

“Progress has been slow, but I hope to see Gen Z women break barriers that challenged many of the women who came before them.”