By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – University of Nebraska at Kearney junior Haley Pierce couldn’t ask for a better place to attend college.
Nothing against her hometown of West Point, but Pierce has a special connection to the Kearney community and people who live here.
“It’s just the way Kearney embraces students and embraces the campus,” she said.
“We tell UNK students when they are coming here that Kearney is a home and UNK is a family, and we want them to feel that,” Pierce added. “We want them to go back and tell their friends that. When they’re here, we want them to have the best experience possible, and part of that is feeling like they’re part of the community.”
As coordinator of Blue Gold Welcome Week, Pierce was helping instill that feeling Thursday night during the annual Destination Downtown event organized by UNK’s First Year Program.
Hundreds of UNK students made their way off campus and onto The Bricks for a fun-filled evening in Kearney’s downtown business district. On an otherwise dreary day, even the sun managed to come out for the festivities, which included free food, games, product giveaways, student discounts at local businesses and drawings for gift certificates and other prizes.
UNK junior Madison Clausen and three friends managed to find the caricature artist along a packed Central Avenue. After posing for a group drawing, the Norfolk native had nothing but good things to say about Kearney.
“It’s really family-friendly and it provides a lot of opportunities for people to get out in the community,” Clausen said. “The community gives a lot back to UNK.”
Whether they’re looking for a place to work, a unique restaurant to try, a fun weekend activity or a tranquil spot to relax, Clausen said students can easily find it here.
“Kearney has everything,” she said. “I just think it’s awesome.”
Thursday night’s event, which also featured an eating contest and performances by Lemon Fresh Day and UNK’s Pride of the Plains Marching Band, served as an introduction to many of these amenities for freshmen and international students who are new to the city.
The goal of Destination Downtown is to show students what the community has to offer, whether they’re walking through a store’s front door or stopping by one of the information tables lined up along the streets.
“We want students to feel welcome at UNK and we want them to feel welcome in the community, as well,” Pierce said. Hopefully, she added, that encourages them to support the community by shopping locally and getting involved with service projects.
Linda Seals, owner of K-town Cakes, didn’t have any trouble promoting her business during Destination Downtown. A line stretched out the door as people waited to get their hands on hundreds of cupcakes and other treats prepared by the bakery.
“Destination Downtown is amazing,” Seals said. “It gives a lot of the storefronts the recognition they need. It gets the college students downtown to notice what’s going on.”
The downtown district and small businesses located there are a vital part of Kearney, according to Seals, who appreciates the support from UNK.
“It’s good for the community,” she said.
Laura Ryan agrees.
The owner of Studio 222, a combination boutique, yoga studio, salon and spa, can tell when UNK students return to Kearney following summer break.
“When the college students come back, it’s huge for business,” she said. “They’re so important to the businesses in Kearney, because they help keep our community vibrant.”
Ryan, who opened her business in November 2016, pointed to the mass of people gathered outside her front door as an example of that impact.
“This might be the largest crowd I’ve ever seen downtown,” she said.
It takes more than a lot of people to impress UNK freshman Paloma Davila, who moved from Omaha to Kearney to study elementary education. But, despite its smaller size, Davila said Kearney has exceeded her expectations so far.
“I think it’s a cool town,” she said.
SATURDAY SCAVENGER HUNT
UNK’s First Year Program is partnering with Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce to give students another way to explore the community. A business scavenger hunt is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday starting at the Nebraskan Student Union. Teams of two to four students can compete for prizes.
— UNK (@UNKearney) August 24, 2018