Alumni Stories: “Where Are They Now?”

Artists For Humanity
5 min readMar 12, 2021

Edition 15 — Kelsey Arbona

My One Constant

Arbona’s AFH headshot.

Kelsey Arbona, Artists For Humanity’s Design Director, was first exposed to design as a child. She would visit her uncle, a graphic designer for The Boston Globe, at work and draw Pokémon on his tablet. But her formal art education didn’t begin until her aunt saw an advertisement for AFH in the newspaper, and encouraged teenage Arbona to apply. “13 years and a thousand experiences later, I’m the Design Director,” she said.

At AFH, she began in the Painting Studio, but always planned on moving to the Graphic Design Studio. However, the time she spent painting did help her to overcome a fear of making mistakes. “I remember [my mentors] Cassie and Garima saying, ‘you can blend paint, it isn’t final, you can always go over it if you mess up.’ I overcame that fear and opened my mind to experimentation.” Her increased comfort level with making mistakes, she said, was a boon when she made the move to the Graphic Design Studio and began to experiment with all different types of software and styles.

One of Arbona’s pieces from her time in the Painting Studio.

AFH was a respite from school for Arbona. She spent much of class time furiously taking notes until her hand ached, and had a difficult time retaining the information. Eventually, she turned to drawing. “I would doodle in my notebook, which I thought was giving up, but I was doodling icons related to the subject,” she said. Later in life, Arbona realized that she had been essentially creating infographics in order to teach herself the material. “I was using design to overcome that challenge and learn the way I needed to learn,” she explained.

AFH enabled her to grow in a way that school did not.

Arbona said, “[AFH] gave me a purpose. It gave me a space to learn and contribute and become a creative collaborator, and a leader.”

A teenage Arbona works in the Graphic Design studio.

Especially vital to her success was Claudia de Piante Vicin, her mentor in the Graphic Design Studio. Arbona said that without Claudia, she’s unsure of where she would be. “[Claudia] seeing the potential in me was really what changed my trajectory,” she reflected.

When Arbona left high school halfway through her senior year, she continued to work at AFH. “AFH has always been my one constant. When everything else is uncertain and scary and crazy, it’s the one thing I can count on,” she said. In addition to working at AFH, Arbona took night school classes so she could earn her high school diploma.

Kelsey presenting a gift to Claudia on Claudia’s last day at AFH.

She then went to Bunker Hill Community College where she received her Associate’s Degree in Graphic Design. Arbona also interned, and later worked part-time as an On-Air Designer for the New England Sports Network (NESN), a cable network that airs Boston-area sporting events. At NESN, she continued to hone her design skills while simultaneously working part-time as a mentor for AFH.

In 2015, Arbona received a scholarship to attend Lesley University through the Urban Scholars Initiative, which partners with AFH to help low-income students afford college. She studied Graphic Design, and graduated with a BFA in 2017.

Arbona said that her time at AFH gave her a leg-up in college because she had already learned the basics of design, which gave her more time to experiment and push boundaries.

“I felt comfortable doing so because I had the confidence from AFH to talk about my work and defend those risks,” she said.

All the while, Arbona continued to work as a Mentor in the Graphic Design Studio. Two years ago, she became the manager of the studio.

Arbona has a unique perspective because she has worked at AFH as both a teen and as a mentor. She said, “I try to constantly remind myself what it was to be a teen and why the AFH experience was so valuable to me.”

Kelsey with the Graphic Design team.

She said that she doesn’t necessarily expect her teens to become designers, but that she wants them to learn other lessons from the experience. “I do expect them to be able to observe the world and listen genuinely and have ideas for solutions and take a position,” she said. Arbona explained that AFH helps teens develop these abilities because it requires them to work with clients and advocate for their art.

“I also want the teens to be able to have a seat at every table, in any important conversation,” she said. This had driven her to help many of the teens register to vote. She explained, “Having choices in our world is a privilege, and they deserve that privilege.”

Arbona works with her group of Graphic Design teens.

But most of all, Arbona said, she especially loves the moment when things finally “click” for her teens. “It’s this crazy thing where this lightbulb goes off in them. All of a sudden they understand their value and they feel excited to contribute and take advantage of all the opportunities you offer them. Those are the moments that remind me why the work we’re doing is so important.”

Written by Lena Novins-Montague.