The Power of Kelsey Dresser

Death of MFT student doesn’t deter from the impact she will continue to have on students, faculty

By Matthew C. Stevens

Kesley Dresser Facebook photo

Kelsey Dresser, in the photo she used on her Facebook page.

By all accounts, first-year graduate student Kelsey Dresser was a “genuine and caring person,” which is no faint praise coming from students and faculty members from USC Rossier’s Marriage and Family Therapy program.

Genuineness is a frequent topic in class discussions, where aspiring therapists strive to be authentic. Through role-playing, they learn to practice the art of being genuine.

Kelsey had the drill down from the beginning.

“I can’t tell you enough how genuine she was,” says Kelsey’s friend and fellow student Patrice Kane. “She had a way of putting you at ease, even when she was overwhelmed. She went out of her way to make other people feel better. She was going to be an incredible therapist.” 

Kelsey was killed in a car accident in December, just as the fall semester drew to a close.

“We grieve for the loss of our talented student,” said Dean Karen Symms Gallagher in a message to the Rossier community, “and our thoughts are with her family during this difficult time. Rossier’s MFT program is a very tightknit community, and Kelsey was a beloved member of her cohort.”

Kelsey’s memorial takes place Saturday, Jan. 30, at 12:30 pm at the Solana Beach Presbyterian Church.

Kelsey was born in Billings, Montana, in 1992 and grew up in Connecticut and San Diego County, Calif. She studied psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she graduated in 2014. While at UCSB she was the campus liaison for Active Minds—a nonprofit organization that raises mental health awareness among college students. She also served as a research assistant in an autism center.

Fellow USC Rossier student Erin Mueth also attended UCSB, where she recalls working with Kelsey as a research assistant on a project called “The Power of Play,” which uses experimental play to teach kids better social skills.

The pair would lose themselves two to three times a week on the playground at neighboring Isla Vista Elementary School.

“We would play soccer with the students while singing to pop songs from a boom box,” recalls Erin. “Kelsey was a genuinely compassionate, kind and caring person, and she would really get involved with whatever game she was playing.”

Kelsey surprised her fellow students by declaring senior citizens as her target therapy population for her future private practice. Other graduate students might have shied away from an older population that frequently dealt with aging, illness and death. Not Kelsey. Perhaps she found common ground in her experiences with a series of health issues of her own, but the answer was less profound than that. She simply liked hanging out with older people. In high school, her volunteer gigs included playing bingo and swapping stories with people old enough to be her great grandparents.

Professor Greg Henderson recalls a moment when one of his students playfully called Kelsey an “old soul.” The class was talking about personality traits, specifically the differences between introversion and extroversion. Although fellow students like Patrice knew about Kelsey’s “wicked sense of humor,” others saw a reserved and deliberate student who might hold back in larger group settings.

As the class discussed ways to nurture and encourage introverted students, Henderson took note of the way Kelsey was tracking the conversation.

“Kelsey was happy to let others speak first, and thus didn’t often speak in class,” he said. “However, her engagement with the material was always apparent, and when she did speak up, her comments were insightful, intelligent and quite often served to deepen the level of discussion in a way that belied her age.”

Professor Sandra Smith has similar impressions of Kelsey from her “Theories of Counseling” class, where students role-play from various theoretical orientations.

“During her own role-plays and feedback sessions,” said Smith, “Kelsey was forthright and honest and painstakingly sensitive in providing feedback to her fellow students. She seemed quiet and introspective, and ever so conscientious. When she talked, people listened. Kelsey was, in my opinion, headed toward becoming one hell of a good therapist.”

But Smith has another memory of Kelsey that stands out—of a young and vibrant 23-year-old after an afternoon on the town with Patrice, Erin and a group of other students celebrating Patrice’s birthday in September.

“This is how I will always picture Kelsey Dresser in my mind’s eye—beautiful, smiling, happy—and surrounded by friends.”


For more on Kelsey, you can view the obituary that appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune.