Back in 2015, about a year before she graduated from Yelm High School — and long before she landed her first professional dream job — Brianna Feller decided it would be illuminating to travel around the country with her mom, Teresa, checking out potential colleges to attend.
But in her two-week circumnavigation, one school she was most seriously considering lay virtually in her backyard — at least compared to those 3,000 miles away on the East Coast — and that school was Washington State University.
So, figuring she and her mom would get a good taste of the university by attending a late-fall football game, they did just that. By the end of the contest — or more likely by the end of the opening kickoff — it was pretty clear Feller had reached her verdict.
No way, baby, was she going to WSU: Frostbite didn’t figure in her future plans.
“During the walk back to the car, I just realized how much I couldn’t take the cold anymore,” she said last week. “I’m not sure exactly how cold it was, but I couldn’t feel my toes.”
This, mind you, was coming from a woman born and raised in the Yelm-Roy-McKenna triumvirate, which in January, for instance, isn’t exactly a tropical paradise. But she wasn’t about to move to Pullman, where the winter periodically brings a smile to the Abominable Snowman but leaves others frowning beneath thick parkas.
So she decided she needed a change — desert style — and ended up at Arizona State University in Tempe on a full-ride academic scholarship. The school, a mere 12 miles from Phoenix — where daytime temperatures hover just a few degrees north of Hell — would be her home for the next three years.
She’d greased the wheels for her ASU scholarship while at Yelm High School.
In addition to graduating with a 3.8 GPA after completing Running Start at South Puget Sound Community College, Feller was YHS’s Associated Student Body treasurer her junior and senior years, Yelm Lions Club Prairie Days volunteer in 2015, Rotary Club of Yelm student of the month in 2016, and an intern for five months in 2016 with Port of Olympia Marketing and Outreach.
Feller graduated from ASU in May 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in communication and stayed in Tempe until September working as an administrative assistant for a window company until finally throwing in the Arizona towel. Roy suddenly seemed like the lifeline she needed.
“The job market there (in Tempe) was slim, and I was struggling to find a good job,” she explained. “So part of the reason I moved back was financial, but my niece was born while I was at ASU and I was excited to watch her grow. I hadn’t been able to come home much while at school, and I had missed out on a lot.”
So Feller moved back to Roy, keeping her eyes peeled for a suitable job that would complement her brand new college degree. It was a homecoming she hadn’t contemplated when she first moved to Tempe.
She had chosen ASU figuring she’d move from there to Los Angeles after graduating and experience the life of a big-city marketing professional. That all changed after three years near Phoenix, population 1.6 million.
“Being in Tempe and near Phoenix sort of relieved me of the itch of going to a big city,” she said. “At ASU I fulfilled that craving for adventure and then wanted to move back closer to family.”
Feller’s parents, Teresa and Scott Feller, older brother Tyler, two grandmothers Reba and Della, and a niece and nephew all live in the immediate area.
So after working for about six months at Yelm’s Uptown Lounge, Feller finally spied an opening that intrigued her: communications specialist with the city of Yelm. She got the job, of course, and began in March, ironically just two weeks before Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19-related “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order banned most in-person business activity. Feller would subsequently work from home from March until June.
But, she admitted, her timing just happened to be impeccable.
“I was really lucky I got the job before the stay home order went into effect,” Feller said.
She figures luck and a heaping helping of mentored networking might have played a part in her landing her first professional job, but Yelm was really the lucky one, her supervisor Michael Grayum suggested in a recent email.
“One of the things I appreciate most about Brianna is her genuine interest in getting to know people,” said Grayum, the city’s administrator. “She has both a passion and talent for telling stories about her coworkers in ways that highlight the important work they are doing and the many important projects our team members are working on ...
“Brianna’s engaging personality and creative thinking positively promotes the city of Yelm in so many ways.”
Some of those ways include managing the city’s website and social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, coordinating all community center and city park rentals, maintaining the city’s internal newsletter, writing and distributing press releases for city hall and the city’s Public Works Department and being the public contact for what will become the city’s new Education and Innovation Center.
“I just want to make sure the public has as much access to information as possible,” Feller said.
The pandemic has not made that job any easier — both for Feller personally or for her ability to disseminate timely information.
“Working from home was extremely difficult, because a lot of this job is making contacts in the office,” she said. “It was harder to make those connections and learn about the projects.”
And when she finally returned to the office, it was as though she’d never been there before.
“My first day back to work after the COVID restrictions were eased was like being the new kid again,” she recalled. “It was like my very first day.”
And even though she still felt like the new kid, her communications prowess has dazzled the city’s man on high — Mayor JW Foster.
“We were impressed with Brianna right at the start of her application interview,” Foster recalled in a recent email. “She may be young in years but appears world-wise and thoughtful in her approach to communications. She is a good listener and two-way conversationalist, listening to understand, then accurately reflecting those thoughts back.
“She quickly picks up on the central idea of complex issues, and has a knack for expressing them in easy-to-understand language.”
Since June, Feller, Foster and the city’s customer service team of four, routinely occupy the nearly vacant city hall — all other city hall employees still working from home. But despite the skeleton crew, Feller was relieved to finally feel as though she had a real job in a real office. And it helped her connect with others in the office that under normal circumstances she might not have gotten to know as well.
“Yes, it was nice because I’ve finally been able to bond with our customer service team, and that’s been great,” she said.
And the job itself has afforded her opportunities she might not have predicted when she was first hired,
“I’m just now at 23 learning a lot of information about my city, even though I grew up here,” she said. “And I love that.”
She’s also been given a relatively free hand to design her job as she sees fit, she said.
“I’ve been able to mold and carve this position into anything I’ve wanted it to be, and in that process I’ve learned a lot about communication.”
Foster, who’s in the office most days, has helped Feller gain insight into her chosen field.
“I bounce almost all of my ideas off of the mayor,” she said. “I really couldn’t ask for a better teacher and mentor during this time.”
Feller’s thrilled the city took a chance on her, especially given her lack of experience.
“My biggest challenge is that this is my first job out of college,” she said. “I just had the base knowledge from college, but not the experience. This job has helped me grow.”
Feller, who works 32 hours a week, manages to spend her free time doing what she loves most: spending time with her family — though wanderlust invariably lurks quietly beneath her surface. She’s traveled extensively around the U.S. and to Costa Rica, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico and Canada. Europe’s next, she hopes.
But in the meantime, she’s content to spend time at home.
“I love family and being around them,” she said. “You have to make the most of life and experience as much as you can. But Yelm will always hold a special place in my heart.”