By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Mason Casper isn’t too nervous about delivering the student address during Friday’s spring commencement ceremony.
The soon-to-be University of Nebraska at Kearney graduate knows he’ll have plenty of support from the crowd.
“It’s going to be so much fun to look out into this sea of Lopers and see all my friends,” he said. “That’s one thing I love about UNK – it’s big enough that you don’t know everybody but it’s small enough that you know a lot of people. I feel like I have a relationship with a lot of people on this campus, so to go out there and just be talking to my friends, that takes some of the pressure off for sure.”
As Casper prepares to close one chapter of his life and begin another, he’s been thinking about his time at UNK and what the past four years have meant to him. The importance of those relationships keeps coming up again and again.
“I remember being a freshman, thrown into a whole new world, ready to start my own journey,” he said. “I had so many upperclassmen there to support and guide me through this time. Now, as a senior, I found it was my responsibility to help prepare fellow Lopers for their own journeys. I just hope that I was able to have the same impact on them.”
A Kearney Catholic graduate, Casper enrolled at UNK as a member of the Kearney Health Opportunities Program (KHOP), a partnership with the University of Nebraska Medical Center designed to grow the state’s health care workforce.
Launched in 2010, the program addresses a growing need for health care professionals by recruiting and training students from rural Nebraska who will remain in these areas to practice.
Born and raised in Kearney, Casper already knew he wanted to work in a rural community. Then he learned about his grandparents’ struggle to find quality health care. They were forced to drive from Kimball to Colorado – a three-hour trip – after a specialist closed in Scottsbluff.
“That really limits what you can obtain in terms of health care,” Casper said. “Hearing their stories made me want to be part of the solution.”
KHOP participants are awarded full-tuition scholarships to study at UNK and guaranteed admission to UNMC if all requirements are met. Those are great perks, Casper said, “but the real benefit for me was all the experiences the program provides.”
As a freshman, Casper was part of a learning community that provides additional support and guidance as students transition to college. Members live together, study together and get together weekly to discuss rural health care and the challenges providers face. They also meet with health care providers and tour medical facilities, allowing them to see different career paths and create professional networks.
“The biggest thing, by far, that the KHOP program has given me is that network of people who share the same vision and share the same goals,” Casper said. “That’s where I met a lot of my best friends. We lived together. We took many of the same classes together. There’s that sense of camaraderie because we’ve spent so much time together.
“In 10-15 years, we’re going to have this huge network of people spread across the state and hopefully we can turn to each other to help solve this problem.”
Casper gained additional experience in the medical field, along with course credits, by working as a scribe at Kearney Regional Medical Center. That allowed him to learn more about the electronic medical records system and patient care.
Peggy Abels, director of UNK Health Sciences, called him a natural leader and excellent role model who “raised the bar and encouraged others to join him.”
“Mason will be an asset to the medical profession,” she said. “His people skills, combined with his critical-thinking abilities, will serve his patients well. As part of the KHOP program, Mason is committed to practicing in rural Nebraska. His compassion for others and his work ethic will make him successful and any rural community will be lucky to have him.”
A dean’s list student with a perfect 4.0 GPA, Casper will receive a bachelor’s degree in biology with a health science emphasis on Friday, then he’s getting married and moving away from his hometown for the first time to attend medical school at UNMC in Omaha.
“I’m going to miss Kearney, I know it, but I’ll always be a Loper at heart and I look forward to being reunited with this wonderful community someday,” he said.
Paul Twigg, a UNK biology professor and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, describes Casper as a community builder.
“He attracts others and makes them want to participate in a common goal, whether that’s in class or showing up at events of all kinds to help out,” Twigg said.
That part of his college experience was just as important as academics. Casper gained valuable communication, leadership and problem-solving skills through his involvement in Fraternity and Sorority Life, Residence Life and other campus organizations.
“I learned a lot of great information in my classes, but it’s your extracurriculars and your involvement outside of class that really develop your human skills,” he said. “I can memorize these muscles, but what does it matter if I can’t go and communicate that to somebody?”
Casper joined the Phi Delta Theta fraternity as a freshman and immediately took on leadership positions. He served as an executive board member and treasurer in his first year, then advanced to chapter vice president and interim president. As a junior, he was president of the council that oversees five UNK fraternities.
“When I joined Greek Life, the biggest thing I wanted to get out of it was leadership experience. I wanted to try to catapult myself into uncomfortable situations where I had to figure it out. That’s what I was looking for, and that’s definitely what I got,” said Casper, who was named Phi Delta Theta New Member of the Year in 2019, Phi Delta Theta Member of the Year in 2020 and UNK Greek Man of the Year in 2023.
He’s been a floor president, resident assistant and assistant hall director for Residence Life, earning RA of the Year honors in 2022, and was part of the Chancellor’s Ambassadors organization and GAMMA peer health education group. Earlier this month, Casper received the Mary Jane and William R. Nester Student Leadership Award recognizing outstanding seniors who have excelled academically and demonstrated exemplary service, character and leadership during their UNK undergraduate careers.
“I feel as though my greatest impact as a student leader has been through the positive influence I made on others,” he said. “This impact has come from different sources – programs, speaking at student panels, volunteering at events and even just greeting others around campus. These relationships are the true rewards of my hard work, not the awards or titles, and I will hold them dearly for the rest of my life.”