By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Tatum Vondra made it very clear.
Her favorite part of the Blue Gold Community Showcase is all the free stuff.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney freshman walked around Friday evening’s event with a Jimmy John’s sandwich in one hand, snow cone in the other and a bag filled with goodies wrapped around her arm. She had a colorful lei around her neck and a smile on her face as she chatted with a group of friends.
Vondra has only been on campus a week, but it was already starting to feel like home for the Milford native. She joined the Alpha Phi sorority on Thursday, and Friday’s festivities gave her a chance to learn more about UNK and the city of Kearney.
“I’ve already gotten exposed to a lot of businesses around Kearney that I didn’t even know existed. This is definitely a good way to get more familiar with the community,” Vondra said during Blue Gold Community Showcase, an annual event that brings the campus and community together to celebrate the start of a new school year and introduces new students to everything the city has to offer.
“When I was in high school I was really involved, so I like this kind of event where I can see all the organizations UNK and Kearney have,” said Vondra, who will study business administration with a marketing emphasis when classes begin Monday.
Part of Blue Gold Welcome Week, the showcase draws approximately 2,000 to 3,000 students, staff, faculty and community members to the UNK Campus Greens for a few hours of fun, food and, of course, free stuff. There’s live music, a dunk tank, yard games and a picnic hosted by Chancellor Doug Kristensen with barbecue chicken, brisket, sides and desserts prepared by UNK Dining Services.
Roughly 200 vendors – local businesses, organizations and nonprofits, plus UNK student organizations, services and academic departments – lined the sidewalks with tables and tents and attendees walked away with plenty of prizes and products. There were T-shirts, pens, cups, koozies, keychains and pretty much anything else you can slap a logo on.
Runza representatives arrived with plenty of swag to hand out, plus information on an upcoming hiring day.
“We’re looking to support the community, support the Lopers and hopefully hire a few students along the way,” said Kasey Hermann, general manager of the restaurant chain’s Second Avenue location.
Hermann and his wife Clara, an assistant manager at the Runza on West 39th Street, both attended UNK and they understand the impact the university has on the local economy.
“It’s huge,” Hermann said. “Probably half our staff are UNK students.”
A few feet away, another UNK graduate was promoting employment opportunities with Kearney Park and Recreation, a yearly participant in the Blue Gold Community Showcase.
“We’re very thankful and lucky to have UNK, because if we didn’t we probably wouldn’t be able to fill all our positions,” said park superintendent Jade Brown. “It’s great to have the UNK students here in town.”
Kearney Park and Recreation hires 300 to 400 seasonal employees in the summer and about 200 during the fall and winter, according to Brown, who has openings for weekend camp instructors, youth sports coaches and officials, grounds maintenance workers and other part-time positions. UNK students also intern with the city department and gain hands-on experience through practicum partnerships.
Brown called the event sponsored by UNK’s Office of Student Engagement a win-win for Kearney and UNK.
“Kearney is a great community and we have a lot of businesses, organizations and clubs the UNK students can be involved with,” she said. “And having the UNK students involved in our community is a big benefit for us.”
Blue Gold Showcase also gives UNK students a chance to learn more about their school and each other.
Chemistry Club members Jared Hunke and Akshay Kashyap lured in a crowd with ice cream they made using liquid nitrogen.
Hunke, a senior from Holdrege, said the event is a great opportunity for freshmen to develop friendships early in their UNK careers.
“Moving to a new place can be kind of hard, especially now that they’re living by themselves and away from their parents, so getting out, meeting people and trying new things really helps,” he said.
For marketing director Kyle Means, it was the perfect place to promote UNK’s new brand – “Be Blue. Be Gold. Be Bold.”
Giant, foam letters displaying the slogan enticed attendees to take selfies, and staff from UNK Communications and Marketing gave away stickers and T-shirts to drum up excitement. All 1,200 shirts were gone within 90 minutes.
“They’re loving the message,” Means said. “That will really help us as we continue to expand this campaign.”
Attending his 12th Blue Gold Community Showcase, Means said he really enjoys seeing all the new faces on campus each year.
“This is one of their first impressions of Kearney,” Means said, “and what a great impression it is.”