Team

Traci Kirtley

Traci Kirtley

Executive Director

Traci is an experienced leader in the college access and success space. She has dedicated her career to helping this country live up to the promise that all people can go as far as their talents and hard work can take them. Building on her work as a high school teacher, she was the architect of the highly respected program at College Possible, and spent the last fifteen years designing, leading, and scaling their work across the country. During her tenure, the program grew from serving 400 students in Minnesota to reaching nearly 30,000 students across the country via in-person and remote services, receiving accolades for the innovative model and nation-leading results for students. In both staff and board roles, she has extensive experience at launching and scaling initiatives. In addition to her work with Believe in Students, she is a governor-appointed commissioner on the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service, and serves on the launch committee for a new nonprofit association in her home state. Traci holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School and earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She lives in Iowa with her husband, Brian, and son, Devon. When she’s not at work, she can be found gardening.

Dr. Gralon A. Johnson

Dr. Gralon A. Johnson

Director of Program Strategy and Service

Gralon is the inaugural Director of Program Strategy and Services at Believe in Students, having previously consulted with the organization in the development of the report, Building an Inclusive Emergency Aid Approach. Dr. Johnson’s career has centered the experiences of those navigating basic needs insecurity, with a focus on programs and support services that promote pathways out of poverty among youth, low-income families, and communities of color. Prior to Believe in Students, Dr. Johnson served as Chief Program Officer at Covenant House Missouri, leading its commitment to deliver comprehensive programming for youth and young adults (ages 16 to 24) actively experiencing homelessness in St. Louis. He also brings strong experience leading multi-site program operations, designing ambitious student success initiatives, and driving lean process improvement strategies with education equity organizations and on college campuses. This includes a tenure as National Director of Programs at College Possible, one of the largest education equity organizations in the United States, and advising university presidents on strategies to enroll, support, and graduate more first-generation students, low-income students, and students of color. Dr. Johnson earned his Ph.D. in Human Ecology and Applied Family Science from Kansas State University, his master’s degree from the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas, and his bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He lives in St. Louis with his wife, Brittany, and son, Corey.

Brittney Pless

Brittney Pless

Communications Manager

Brittney provides comprehensive communication management and fundraising strategy for Believe in Students. She has over seven years of experience as a communication professional and has developed a branding awareness and messaging acumen. In addition, Brittney is well-versed in developing integrated communications strategies that ensure effective delivery of messaging and content that leverage traditional media outlets (e.g., email and direct mail) and digital strategy (e.g., web and social media). She also gained experience in the nonprofit space by supporting organizations that cultivate community and corporate relations, external affairs, and workforce development. Brittney holds a bachelor’s degree from Temple University. She currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, where she spends her free time exploring the city with her family and friends.

Melissa Calhoon

Melissa Calhoon

Faculty Engagement Manager

Melissa has over twenty years of experience in program development, education, and non-profit management. She currently acts as the inaugural Manager of Faculty Engagement. Prior to working with Believe in Students, she worked within the higher education access field for over ten years on the Western Slope of Colorado. During her tenure at the institution, Melissa helped four programs start up and grow while assisting students in reaching their goals while overcoming systematic and individual challenges.

She holds the belief that people are what make the community a vibrant place to live. In addition to her role at Believe in Students, she is a governor appointed Colorado Commissioner on Community Service. She has been involved with various boards within Steamboat Springs, around Colorado and Grand Junction. Most recently, Melissa was a Colorado Governors Fellow. She holds a Master in Nonprofit Management and Philanthropy from Bay Path University, MA and B.S. from Slippery Rock University, PA. In her free time, she enjoys spending as much time outdoors as possible exploring and hiking with her family.

Emi Pavia

Emi Pavia

Student and Support Manager

is a versatile professional with a Master of Public Administration from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies with a Minor in Mexican American Studies from the University of Northern Colorado. She has excelled in various roles, notably as an International Recruitment Coordinator at Northern Arizona University, where she managed databases, organized on-campus recruitment programs, and contributed to admissions processes for international students. Emi’s impactful work extends to their Transitions and Family Advocate role at Florence Crittenton Services, where she implemented innovative initiatives, collaborated with external partners, and supported students in achieving their post-secondary goals. With a strong commitment to education, advocacy, and community engagement, Emi is a dedicated professional poised to make a meaningful impact. She enjoys running, hiking, skiing, and all of Flagstaff’s outdoor activities in her free time!

Wenster Rodriguez

Wenster Rodriguez

Bookkeeper

is the Bookkeeper at Believe in Students. Interest also include soccer, travel and theater. He is a graduate from Marymount Manhattan College with a degree in international Relations and Economics, and certifications in Accounting.