At 21, Jei-laya Hassan is studying and planning for her dream.
The Richland Township resident will be a senior this fall at Penn State, where she is working on a double major of public relations and sociology.
She plans to start her own nonprofit organization that would take every facet of the arts to underprivileged children.
“I have a passion for children and to give back to the community,” Hassan said. “My dream is to have centers all over the world – and Johnstown definitely.”
Hassan started as an education major and even taught some preschool.
“There’s nothing more beautiful to me than seeing kindergarten kids singing and dancing,” Hassan said. “When you ask a kindergarten class who can sing or dance, they all raise their hands. When they get older, they don’t.”
Hassan had some experience in musical theater when she attended Richland High School, from which she graduated in 2010.
During her senior year she had a part in “Oliver,” and in 2009 she won an Isaac Award for her part in “Les Miserables” and received a small scholarship to Penn State.
Hassan also was the 2009-2010 Richland homecoming queen.
She credits music teacher Kim Rauch with guiding her from fourth grade until she graduated.
“He took a special interest in my singing,” Hassan said. “I think I needed someone to notice me. I was always a little different, the only African-American at Richland. I was a dork, a super dweb on the honor roll. Through Mr. Rauch’s guidance, I went from 0 to 60 musically.”
When Hassan returned to her alma mater as part of the Penn State a capella group The Penn Harmonics, her art teacher painted her a sign proclaiming, “Welcome home, Jei-laya.”
“I was blessed to go to school at Richland,” she said.
Hassan has been a member of The Penn Harmonics since her freshman year at Penn State and serves as the group’s public relations manager.
“The Penn Harmonics has fulfilled my need for music and pushed me to be the best,” she said.
The group sings all types of music and plans to produce a CD this fall fall that will be released in the spring.
“I intended to be a musical theater major, but I thought I wasn’t good enough for Penn State,” Hassan said. “I can sing, dance and act, but it’s from the heart. To do it for school, I
didn’t know. I switched my major five times.”
While she may not be studying music, Hassan said singing will always be a part of her life.
“I want to keep the music alive my whole life,” she said. “Singing brings me peace and solace. It’s like meditation. It’s therapeutic for me. Music brings people together. It’s so powerful.”
Hassan has lived in the same Richland Township neighborhood her entire life. She was brought into her family as a foster child when she was less than 2 years old and adopted when she was 6.
Her adoptive father, Jamil, is from Kuwait and came to the United States to play soccer and study engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.
When he came to Pitt-Johnstown to finish his engineering degree, he met Hassan’s adoptive mother, Cindy, at a Windber pizza shop.
“When my family moved to Johnstown, my mother wanted a little girl,” she said.
Hassan is the baby in a family of three brothers whom she admires. Jassim, an engineer, and Rashaud, an artist, were born in Kuwait. Ali was born in Texas, and is a musical engineer in New York City working with groups like Bon Jovi.
“This is the kind of environment I grew up in,” Hassan said. “Without my family, I wouldn’t have the guts to do the things that scare me. My family is my support team and tells me I can do it.”
Hassan plans to go straight to graduate school after college to study corporate communications.
Her school of choice is Duquesne University.
She has finished an internship as a branch operator for College Works Painting in State College and is just starting another for the nonprofit Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research as a marketing intern.
“I’ll work on social media and outreach,” Hassan said. “This is for organizations who need extra band width. We service Penn Highlands and UPJ.”
There will be an information session on what KINBER is capable of doing June 26-27 at the University of Pittsburgh.
“My job is to get their name out and let others know this is available for them,” she said. “We want to give them the opportunity to be up to speed.”
Hassan also worked as a community outreach assistant for Home Instead Senior Care in State College, where she organized a fundraising event that earned $8,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association.
While she is busy with internships in State College, Hassan stays at an off-campus house she rents with other members of The Penn Harmonics.
“The majority of the time I’m there, but I try to come home at least once a month,” Hassan said.
When she returns to classes in the fall, she will head a new student group she has created, Promoting Student Unity and Diversity.
“There are questions people want to ask, but they’re afraid,” Hassan said. “My favorite is ‘Can I touch your hair?’ I want this to be a safe place to get answers.”
She also wants to center on race relations in the corporate world for her sociology classes.
“We need to get to the realness of each other,” Hassan said. “This is something I want to do in my workplace.”
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