by Kayla Vasilko

My collective experience in the Festival 500 Princess Program can be summarized by two incredible quotes about self-growth and self-belief. 

Carrie Fisher once said, “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually, the confidence will follow.” 

Even though the Princess Program gave me the direct support I needed to learn how to believe in myself, it was the countless opportunities to participate in outreach that helped me believe in myself all the way. 

During a virtual class visit I made to share the 500 Festival spirit with children, this belief kind of snuck up on me. After playing videos for the children in class about some of the best parts of May in Indianapolis, I talked to them about what it means to be a princess. 

As I shared about the importance of putting in hard work to do well in school, pledging your time to do positive work for the community, and above all, striving to be kind, I had an inner realization that my words meant something to those children in that moment, and maybe for some, they might even continue to mean something to them as they grew up. 

This turned into a feeling of I can do this! that would become the first of many. That repeated feeling made me continuously stop and take note of the individuals whose words and actions not only would stay with me forever, but helped me look within myself to identify how I could grow and become stronger. 

Robin Sharma has said that, “The swiftest way to triple your success is to double your investment in personal development.”  

Between countless mentorships and opportunities for outreach, the Princess Program is likely the most accelerated course in personal development in any state in the country. Working so closely with Laura Bliss has taught me how well kindness and efficiency pair together. Laura is always there to offer help or guidance at times before I have even realized I needed it.  

Erik Miner and Gina Williams have been incredible mentors throughout the program. They helped me promote my outreach to make a larger community impact and offered invaluable advice. It was also great that throughout the busyness of balancing the program with my senior year of college, they were there to just check in and offer support. I learned that Erik grew up in Crown Point, IN like I did, and his family has been connected to Purdue for over 25 years. Hearing how he used his experiences to do so many great things in his career, especially with Regions Bank was very inspiring. 

Because of Marlyne Sexton’s kindness and complete support for everything the Princess Program embodies, I now have the funding I need to start pursuing a Master’s degree program in the fall, and continue my education. After hearing how Marlyne turned success brought on by her own dedication and phenomenal leadership skills into support to build up young leaders like myself and the other Princesses I am blessed to currently be on a team with, I am confident when I say she is one of the most incredible mentors I will ever encounter. 

I used all of this inspiration to push myself even further. I worked harder to see projects that I had already started completed successfully. By doing a lot of volunteer work, and exercising the skills in communications and professionalism the Princess Program instilled in me, I was able to complete an exhibit at the LaPorte County Historical Society Museum to honor the life of Anita King, the first women to drive across the country alone! 

It was incredible to be able to honor a woman who was born in Indiana and also became one of the first female racecar drivers while promoting the legacy of the Indianapolis 500 as an Indiana-born Festival 500 Princess.

Above everything, the Princess Program showed me how to balance work and outreach with academics. Because of the value the Program places on scholarship, I felt even more motivated to go the extra mile with my academic work; on May 15, 2021 while the Salesforce and JPMorgan Chase 500 Festival Kids’ Day and Rookie Run was kicking off for the 500 Festival, I walked the Purdue University Northwest stage for the first time as a graduate of the Baccalaureate program in English Writing and Honors, with minors in Spanish and Creative Writing as a Profession.  

I graduated with a 4.0 GPA, the highest in my college, and received the honor of the Chancellor’s Medallion because of this work.  Of all the honors that I received this year for my academic work, I regard the 500 Festival Princess-ship as one of the highest honors that I have ever received and feel that it helped me earn the others in some way.

As we near the end of May, we still have some of the most important events in Indiana to look forward to. Even after the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 has been run, there are many parts of the program that will never really be over for me. I will continue to go the extra mile for the community by engaging in as much outreach as I can. I will work to make sure my relationships with my fellow Princesses and my mentors in the Program are ones that last, and that I treasure for the rest of my life, and I will continue to share the 500 Festival spirit and promote my state’s history wherever my professional future takes me.