By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – When Katie Benner enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, she was convinced she would blend into the background.
The college freshman had no plans to get involved on campus after graduating from Central City High School, where she was a standout volleyball player, honor roll student and homecoming queen.
“I was tired of living such a busy lifestyle,” Benner said. “I wanted to come to college and just enjoy it for a while.”
But that’s not the UNK way.
It didn’t take Benner long to realize she’s always been a “difference maker,” and that wasn’t going to change.
“Looking back on the last four years, I’ve pushed myself beyond anything I thought I ever could. It was challenging at times, but those challenges helped me form the person I wanted to be and the person I’ve become, and nothing will ever replace those experiences,” said Benner, who graduated Friday with a Bachelor of Science degree in interior design and a minor in construction management.
The 22-year-old made a lasting impact during her time at UNK, starting with her involvement in Greek life.
Benner joined Alpha Omicron Pi – the same sorority her mother and aunt pledged – and felt an immediate connection.
“The people you surround yourself with are the people who are going to motivate you to be your best self,” she said. “By joining a sorority, you can surround yourself with women who are like you, because you have similar interests.”
For Benner, the sorority was a “home away from home,” not only because her older sister Kristen and cousin Stephanie Hansen were also members, but because it allowed her to develop a support system and provided the encouragement she needed to seek leadership opportunities.
“There were a lot of older members throughout the Greek community who were involved on campus who I looked to for inspiration,” she said. “I think that’s what you truly find when you’re involved in Greek life.”
Last month, Benner was named UNK’s Greek Woman of the Year in recognition of her dedication to Alpha Omicron Pi and the entire sorority and fraternity community. She served as vice president of public relations and president of the Panhellenic Council, which governs four UNK sororities, was a member of Order of Omega, a society honoring Greek leaders, and held numerous recruitment and leadership positions within Alpha Omicron Pi, including new member educator and assistant treasurer.
During the award presentation, Benner was described as a person who enriches the lives of those around her and embodies what a sorority woman should be – “someone who is humble and kind and lives out her chapter ritual in her everyday life.”
Courtney Hayden, an admissions counselor at UNK, called her a “go-getter” who stood out early on.
“Katie is not only an outstanding student, but an outstanding person, as well,” Hayden said. “She is honest, trustworthy and very hardworking. Katie brought a boost of energy to the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority and our campus.”
In addition to her Greek involvement, Benner served as a New Student Enrollment leader during freshman orientations, led campus tours as a Student Diplomat, participated in undergraduate research and attended Bible studies on campus and at Holy Cross Lutheran Church.
Academically, she maintained a perfect 4.0 GPA and was inducted into the Mortar Board and Phi Eta Sigma honor societies. She also took part in Gold Torch Society, a mentoring program for UNK alumni and undergraduate women, and the Student Interior Design Organization, a club that gives interior design majors the opportunity to network with professionals.
Dana Vaux, an assistant professor of interior and product design at UNK, said Benner “raises the bar” within an academic program with her positive attitude, work ethic and spirit of collaboration.
“Katie is the kind of person who gives 110% to everything she does,” Vaux said. “She was always on the go and off on another leadership adventure.”
That was apparent last summer, when Benner decided to intern at two different businesses. She experienced the residential side of interior design at Julie Hockney Design in Omaha and got a better feel for the commercial side at CMBA Architects in Grand Island, where she continued working part time for a semester, then accepted a full-time job.
Benner starts Monday as an interior designer at the architectural firm.
Like many recent graduates, she’s a bit nervous about her first job after college, but confident UNK put her in a position to succeed.
“Yes, I’m scared about making mistakes and starting a new lifestyle, but I’m ready for it because I feel like my college experience has prepared me,” Benner said.
Vaux shares the same confidence.
“I have no doubt Katie will continue to contribute to those whose lives she touches in her future endeavors,” she said.
Benner, who received the Nester Student Leadership and UNK Alumni Association Outstanding Senior awards for her academic and personal excellence, begins the next chapter of her life knowing she’s a completely different person than that freshman from four years ago.
“I will always look back at UNK and think this is the campus that allowed me to define the person I wanted to be,” she said. “I will always be thankful for a campus that provided me the opportunity to meet people who are like me, who had the same intentions, who wanted to be involved and actually make a difference.”