By Matt Hawkins
March 11, 2014
As a sophomore English major, Rachel Zolfo ’14 faced a crossroads: stay a shy, academic on life’s sideline or let a quiet passion for service drag her into the campus leadership spotlight. She chose to face fears and stepped into a leadership role that changed her career path.
Zolfo spent her sophomore year coordinating charity campaigns for service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. The experience helped her overcome public speaking fears and opened her eyes to new career opportunities. That personal growth led her to pursue a marketing degree and enabled her to excel as a part-time marketing staffer at Peoria-based EP!C, a Peoria-based organization that serves people with disabilities.
“It changed everything. Normally I’m so shy and keep to myself. I realized I have valuable things to say,” she said of her APO work. “It made me come out of my shell. I came out a totally different person. I never thought I would do something like that in college.”
Madeline Smith, vice-president of marketing and public relations at EP!C, saw Zolfo’s potential and pushed her to develop skills the past two years.
“I saw what she could bring to the table and now she’s identifying with that,” Smith said. “She’s a completely different person. She didn’t have a lot of confidence because she didn’t have a lot of experience. Now, she made the difference here and can see it. That’s given her a total boost of confidence.”
The past two years also stoked a passion to advocate for her newfound friends with disabilities.
Zolfo waded into the leadership role when she recommended APO switch its primary charity to charity: water, a nonprofit that builds wells in developing nations.
She dove into an unexpected summer of growth when she landed the EP!C internship after her sophomore year. As the formal internship neared its end, Zolfo developed a pitch to stay onboard, not realizing the organization wanted to keep her.
“I knew I wanted to keep her but I thought I’d have to convince her,” Smith said. “The way in which she requested to stay on was more support she could be here. She showed me she had the ability to do more than she’d ever done before.”
Zolfo now is a marketing and public relations specialist who manages an internship program she initiated. By virtue of hiring Bradley interns to start the program, Zolfo finds herself supervising classmates and fellow APO members.
Looking back on the college journey, Zolfo recognized the impact of caring Bradley faculty on the surprising twists. She recalled economics professor Dr. Bob Weinstein and his wife attending one of her first fundraisers for charity: water.
That incident, like many others along the way, showed her the positive mark of the Bradley community.
“The thing that drew me to Bradley was that professors don’t just care about you as students but as people,” she said. “I’ve seen it countless times.”
By engaging faculty and taking advantage of life’s surprises, Zolfo transformed an introverted freshman into a calm, articulate senior. The journey’s twists shaped her passions and prepared her for a career working for nonprofits.
“By accident, I ended up in the right place," she said. "From an artsy, creative background, marketing is so creative. I do so much with design that I use the skills I had as a child for my job.”