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Salem St. student practices what she preaches

Kelsey Utne of Marblehead.

KATE GOODALE FOR THE GLOBE

Kelsey Utne of Marblehead.

SALEM — While many political science students are focusing on this country's presidential campaigns, Kelsey Utne is looking overseas.

After graduating from Salem State University on May 19, Utne, a triple major in political science, history, and economics, will spend her summer studying Hindi in India through a Critical Language Scholarship, a fully funded language immersion program supported by the US State Department.

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For Utne, 26, of Marblehead, global issues are a natural extension of her political interests.

A member of Salem State University's Honors Program, Utne took a few years off before entering college.

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As a result, she dove into campus life with a candidate’s determination.

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Marblehead’s Kelsey Utne (right), shown with US Senator John Kerry, will put her politics into action as she graduates from Salem State University.

This year, she is the current president of Salem States’s Political Science Academy, a club that promotes international and domestic political awareness through panel discussions and voter registration drives. She helped form the school’s first chapter of Amnesty International, an organization that fights social injustices worldwide.

And last month, Utne even launched a Congress to Campus event in which retired members of Congress visited campus for a forum, open to both local high school and Salem State students.

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“Being older than most students graduating in my class means I approach things differently,” Utne said. “If I'm studying on a Friday night or going to bed when my friends are ready to go out, I'm OK with that.”

Though she only recently focused her studies on Southern Asian politics, Utne says her international interest began in fourth grade when she read a book called “Zlata's Diary.” In it, a young girl describes the hardships she faced while growing up in the midst of the Bosnian war.

“The girl I was reading about was around the same age I was at the time,” Utne said. “I was struck by the idea that we have no say in the world we grow up in.”

From that point on, her global passions grew. While attending Marblehead High School, she participated in the Model United Nations, an event in which students simulate the debates and decisions of UN ambassadors. One of Utne's teachers there, Michael Horgan, challenged her to confront the wrongs she saw in the world.

She took the challenge seriously, and her ambitions and interests deepened along with her responsibilities.

She became president of the North Shore Rotaract Club, a youth club sponsored by local rotaries promoting leadership, service, and networking.

And this past April, Rotaract partnered with Salem State’s chapter of Amnesty International to raise money for clean water in developing countries by showing the documentary film “FLOW” (for the love of water) at Cinema Salem.

‘I like to do the background work . . . to implement change and make a difference ’

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“I formed the Amnesty group in my high school, and I told myself I wouldn't take that responsibility again with all I'm involved with,” Utne said.

“But when I came here and saw that there was no human rights chapter, I had to do it.”

Just before graduation, she will hand off the leadership reins for Salem State’s Amnesty International chapter to Melissa Carella, of Billerica, a junior English major who also has a zeal for human rights issues.

“Kelsey and I are both upbeat and work well together,” Carella said. “She's a woman on top of the world. She cares about a vast amount of issues, and she'll be implementing huge changes someday.”

On top of a full course load — 18 to 20 credits a semester — Utne also participated in numerous guided studies with Michele Louro, assistant professor of history and a Southern Asia specialist.

“Kelsey also took my Colonial India graduate class as an undergrad,” Louro said. “She was on par with the grad students and set the benchmark for performance in that class.”

When Utne isn't taking a graduate class or coordinating an event for the Political Science Academy, she's giving a tour around the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

Utne is a park ranger who leads historic walks through the Salem harbor and works in the visitors center.

“Besides being an exceptional student, Kelsey is very active and cares for her local communities, whether it's the North Shore or Salem State,” Louro said.

And it doesn't look like she'll slow down any time soon. Utne has been accepted to a master's program at the Jackson School of International Studies at Washington University in the fall, and is on the wait list as an alternate for a Fulbright Scholarship, an opportunity she plans to pursue if accepted. She also plans to earn her PhD in order to one day teach at the college level.

“I like to do the background work in order to implement change and make a difference,” Utne said. “I've had a lot of great teachers and mentors in my life, and I want to do that for other people.”

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