Student takes rough path on the road to success


Kelly Henning is the president of the City College Biology Club, a Phi Theta Kappa member and a math tutor.

Linda Sturesson, Staff Writer

With many piercings, black hair, and ink on her neck saying, “‘Tuff Stuff” intended to remind Kelly Henning, 27, to keep her chin up, it’s difficult to believe where she is today.

Henning is the president of the Biology Club, a Phi Theta Kappa member, an honors student and a math tutor. On top of it, she works 32 hours a week at a care-giving center for the developmentally disabled.

“She’s the hardest working person I’ve met,” said Marijke Hoogerhuis, co-president of the Biology Club. “I know she takes 20-minute naps every once in a while when she’s on her three-day benders and she still gets amazing grades. I don’t know how she does it.”

This is Henning’s fourth year at City College and she’s preparing to transfer to UCSB next fall.

Blake Barron, the chair of the biological sciences department, is impressed with Henning’s dedication to the Biology Club for which she organizes all of the events with Hoogerhuis.

“She’s well-organized, forward-thinking and very intelligent,” Barron said. “She’s very proficient as a down-to-earth communicator, which is important to be able to bond to students and get students motivated.”

Even though Henning is an A-student and has a good reputation among teachers and peers, she still has some difficulties when it comes to first impressions. She explained how she was denied a job at the Santa Barbara Zoo, solely based on her visible tattoos.

“I definitely get judged by my looks,” Henning said. “My goal is to look better on paper than I do to some people in real life, so that when they see me, they don’t see my tattoos, they just see my capabilities.”

Henning explained that more often than not, what surprises people is the fact that she’s such a hardworking student because it doesn’t match her look and eccentric personality. However, when people hear about her 60s and 70s taste in music or see her in “some weird spandex, crazy shirt,” they’re less likely to raise their eyebrows.

“I just think it kind of sucks when people judge her right away,” Hoogerhuis said. “They look at her and think she’s so rough, and she’s a frickin’ angel. She wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

Beside the many hours she puts in at school during the day, her nights, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. are often spent at Novellas, a care center for developmentally disabled patients. She visits the clients in their homes to help cook, clean and provide them with medical care and socialization.

“She doesn’t get to sleep at night and she gets to class every day and she’s taking all of these science classes,” said Teresa Payne, member and former president of the Biology Club. “It takes a lot of hard work for her to be doing this.”

But Henning hasn’t always been the ambitious person she is today. She grew up in a poor family in Isla Vista and was kicked out of four high schools for not attending classes. Her focus was mainly on having a good time everyday, a plan that did not include getting an education.

Seven years ago, she went through a life-changing experience when her fiancé Michael passed away in a shooting accident. This was something Henning couldn’t get over on her own, so to ease the pain, she turned to drugs.

“He was my first love and I still cry about it a lot. It’s something I’m not over,” she said. “It’s one of those things that for me, I went down, like spiral down.”

After four years of partying and self-medicating with illegal substances, she finally picked herself up and dusted herself off with support from friends and family.

“Toward the end of being an addict, I remember thinking that if he was watching me, I know how upset he would be,” she said. “You kind of hit that point where you realize; ‘I’m going to always be sad, but I can’t mistreat myself anymore.'”

Henning said the experience made her stronger, that she sees life in a different way and it has affected a lot of her decisions.

“I think that Michael would want this for her. He’d want her to succeed so I think that’s always in the back of her head,” Hoogerhuis said. “It’s like, she doesn’t want to waste a life. I think that’s a lot of her driving force.”

Henning described her boyfriend as being really supportive and loving when he was alive. She said he’d always tell her she was smart and would do something great with her life, even if she never thought she’d come this far herself.

“He would not be surprised,” she said. “If he all of a sudden came into the room, he would not be surprised about where I’m at today.”

Not long after Henning got clean, she quit her job at a beauty salon and moved in with her grandparents to help her grandmother who was battling cancer at the time. She passed in Dec. 2008.

“Before she passed away she said she really wanted me to finish school. She said I had much more potential than just being a hairstylist,” Henning explained. “She passed away in December, and in January, I was in school. She had a lot of influence in my life.”