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Those "conditions" and "obstacles" tested one of the school's most valuable — and practical — lessons: learn to adjust.

Headline: Tour of duty

For most people, a career in tourism conjures up visions of sandy beaches, warm days and cooling breezes, and lots of action.

Kelsey Rigdon got it all — sort of. The 2006 graduate from the IU School of Physical Education & Tourism Management at IUPUI spent her tour with the United Service Organization — better known as the USO — with plenty of sand (from the desert surrounding her base in Kuwait's Camp Buehring), warm days (140 degrees in the summer), cool nights (40 degrees in winter), breezes (otherwise known as sandstorms) and plenty of action (the war in Iraq) to fill her six-month stay in the Middle East.

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, the 26- year-old from Sullivan High School in west central Indiana considered her tour in Kuwait, Dubai and Iraq "a privilege," and "a good way to bring a bit of home back to soldiers who keep us safe."

As the program manager for the USO at Camp Buehring, 10 miles from Iraq, "my main duty was to plan special activities for the troops to take their mind off the reality of war," she recalls. "We had small Wii tournaments all the way up to huge Halloween and Christmas festivals."

The 26-year-old from Sullivan High School in west central Indiana had other duties that few college grads of any age can claim: she looked after more than a few famous faces during her tour, such as singers Kid Rock, Jessica Simpson, Third Day and the Pussycat Dolls; actors Scarlett Johansson and Robin Williams; and athletes like Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong and numerous NFL players.

"It's fun working with stars like those, but it's not all that glamorous," Rigdon chuckles. "Everybody dresses pretty casually — we were in the desert, after all!" Rigdon's ability to bring a touch of home to those stationed far from family and friends doesn't surprise Amanda Cecil, one of Kelsey's teachers and faculty mentors at IUPUI.

"Kelsey thrives on adventure and the opportunity to bring happiness or enjoyment to others," Cecil says. "She is fully aware of what will be expected and the conditions she will have to overcome, and she will conquer these obstacles with humor, grace and determination." Those "conditions" and "obstacles" tested one of the school's more valuable — and practical — lessons: learn to adjust.

"On any given day we knew we might run out of power or water, so I had to be extremely flexible with my events," Rigdon laughs.

Positive outlook

Cecil marvels at Rigdon's ability to impact others despite trying circumstances.

Kelsey "has a unique outlook on life, and always brings a positive perspective to every situation," Cecil adds. "She is not only bright, but creative and innovative."

Susan Benko, another member of the tourism faculty, isn't surprised Rigdon handled the demands of working in a war zone. "I have seen her on good days and even on a rare bad day," says Benko. "When the going gets tough, that's when Kelsey really 'gets going.' "

Her friends and teachers believe that her core strength is based on empathy for others, a trait that is invaluable in a war zone where loss is never far away. Rigdon knows loss: her father, Keith, died of brain cancer when she was a high school freshman; and Kory, one of her two older brothers, was born with cerebral palsy and passed away two years after their father.

That strength was tested again when one of her closest friends on the base was killed in a traffic accident that occurred when he hit a semi stalled in the dark of night without hazard lights. Some Kuwaitis, it seems, don't use lights in the belief that it improves gas mileage.

Kelsey credits her family for being able to handle such situations, as well as being a driving influence in her life.

"My parents were very active in our church in Sullivan, and helped me grow in my walk with Christ," says Rigdon. "They always taught me to follow my dreams." From her father, a radio sport commentator, Kelsey "inherited the gift of gab," while her mother, Twila, "gave me my independence. She has a love for party planning and making every party special." The latter gift came in handy in her USO assignments.

"Kelsey has never been shy about going after what she wants, and she loves working with others," says Twila Rigdon. "She has a knack about helping people feel good and enjoy themselves."

Fan of tourism program

Rigdon is an unabashed fan of her school and the tourism program, considering many of her faculty friends as well as teachers and mentors.

She credits Cecil with offering advice on financial aid options that helped keep Rigdon on track to graduate, and guidance in the usual problems all students face. And she considers program chair Sotiris Hij-Avgoustis "an exceptional teacher — he put up with all kinds of questions from me in the classes I took from him!"

Her international horizons expanded while at IUPUI, too. She and other tourism students took a Mediterranean Sea cruise to the Greek Isles one spring, and also traveled to Iceland for study, as well.

"I had an amazing spring break with both Amanda and Sotiris when I went with the cruise class to Greece," Rigdon says. "We all learned so much and got exposed to such a different culture. That experience is invaluable in our career."