HSU Student’s Passion for Building a Better World Lives on with New Scholarship

Ketly Sylla; with her brother, Terell Oliver, and sister, Kyla Oliver

Ketly Sylla; with her brother, Terell Oliver, and sister, Kyla Oliver 

February 28, 2020—A Humboldt State University student’s commitment to making a difference is continuing on through a memorial scholarship created in her name.

Ketly Sylla (also known as “Kel”), was a senior pursuing her degree in Sociology when she passed away in September at the age of 22. This January, Ketly’s family was presented with an honorary posthumous degree, for Ketly would have graduated this spring. Her memory has also been honored through the Ketly Shakira Sylla Memorial Scholarship which will support Sociology students who, like Ketly, have an interest in working with those with disabilities.

An involved student leader on campus and in the local community, Ketly was an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) student and worked with the African American Center for Academic Excellence, the Indian Tribal & Educational Personnel Program, and the Student Disability Resource Center. Beyond her work, Ketly was known and loved for her joyful and welcoming spirit.

Ketly came to HSU from Los Angeles, driven to experience something beyond the city in which she grew up. “She wanted to experience a different environment, to meet people with different backgrounds,” says Ketly’s mother, Kenya Oliver. “That was one of her favorite things about being at HSU—the small feel environment and becoming friends with so many different people.”

Ketly exhibited many traits that drew people to her over her years at HSU. Lori Cortez-Regan, a Sociology instructor and advisor, knew Ketly from her work in EOP and the Department of Sociology. “She was always really happy, she had this positive attitude and energy that came with her,” says Cortez-Regan.

Associate Dean of Students Roger Wang, who was Ketly’s EOP advisor prior to his time in the Dean of Students office, also worked closely with her over the last few years.

“I can close my eyes and still see her smiling. She was always smiling, always laughing. She was always trying to make people laugh, and to have a good time,” says Wang.

“She was that listening ear, that sister,” Kenya says. Senoia Ortiz, Ketly’s best friend since middle school, agrees. “Whenever people needed her, she was there,” she says.

Her support of others, bubbly personality, and involvement on campus meant that Ketly had a large network of friends at HSU. Wang recalls 60-70 students coming to the tribute that was held in her memory on campus last fall.

Making a difference and helping those who need it the most was a driving force in Ketly’s life, as seen in her involvement on campus and in her personal relationships.

“Ketly wanted to make the world a better place, help other students, to better the campus, to make it easier for others,” says Wang. “She was always focused on diversity, making sure things were accessible to people.”

Ketly’s passion for making a difference wasn’t just seen in her work on campus. Those who knew her recall her sunny outlook to any challenge, profoundly affecting those she came in contact with.

“She gave people hope and helped people look at things in a different light. She taught everybody the valuable lesson to never judge anybody for who they are. She changed people’s lives,” says Senoia.

It was at Ketly’s funeral service that a family friend, Reverend Jack Richardson, proposed the idea of creating a scholarship in her name.

From there, the Ketly Shakira Sylla Memorial Scholarship was created.

Kenya thinks that Ketly would have loved the idea of this scholarship helping other students out in her name. Cortez-Regan agrees. “I think she would have thought the scholarship was amazing, especially the capacity for it to help other students support other people, especially in the area of social justice,” says Cortez-Regan.

Cortez-Regan points to how a scholarship like Ketly’s can have a major impact on a student’s ability to focus on their studies, and to be able to get more involved in and give back to the community and issues they are passionate about through volunteering or service learning, just as Ketly did.

“The scholarship gives people that initiative to think about how they too can make a change, how they can make the world a better place,” says Wang.

Senoia agrees that the scholarship is a reflection of Ketly’s spirit and the continuation of the work she was so passionate about. “With the scholarship, Ketly is still helping people out, even though she is gone.”

To honor Ketly and to support Sociology students committed to working with people with disabilities, gifts can be made to the Ketly Shakira Sylla Memorial Scholarship online. For more information, please contact the HSU Foundation at 707-826-5200 or giving@humboldt.edu.