By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – There are certain things University of Nebraska at Kearney Chancellor Doug Kristensen looks for when selecting a student to speak at commencement.
Academic excellence, campus involvement and a passion for UNK are high on the list.
His pick for Friday’s ceremony, senior McKenzie Cuba, checks all those boxes and then some.
“She really embodies what the very definition of a UNK student is,” Kristensen said. “She’s a Loper through and through.”
Cuba, a business administration major with an emphasis in management and minor in photography, immersed herself in the UNK culture the moment she stepped foot on campus.
The 2014 graduate of Twin River High School chose UNK because the welcoming campus offers plenty of opportunities to try new things and meet new people. She’s taken full advantage of those opportunities over the past four years.
“You find your passions through organizations,” Cuba said. “I found my passion in event programming and student affairs because I got involved.”
Cuba has held leadership positions with the Loper Programming and Activities Council (LPAC) – the student-run group in charge of the spring concert, homecoming, talent show, lip-sync contest and other annual events – since she was a freshman. She’s the current president after spending two years as the event programming chair.
In addition to those responsibilities, Cuba has served as a FIRST Leader, Blue Gold Welcome coordinator, Loper Leader, New Student Enrollment leader and Student Diplomat – sharing her Loper pride with incoming freshmen and campus visitors – and she’s been involved with the Friends mentoring program and The Big Event, a campuswide volunteer project.
Brette Ensz, assistant director of the First Year Program at UNK, called Cuba “the epitome of a student affairs professional.”
“I cannot express in words the impact Kenzie has made not just in my office, but on me, this campus and this community,” Ensz said. “She was never focused on adding new events or ideas because they were hers, but because she genuinely could see the impact those events and ideas would have on first-year students.”
Cuba, a Silver Creek native, credits her parents Frank and Nancy for instilling that drive in her.
“Growing up, I was told you can never do anything halfway,” she said. “It’s work before play and you can’t quit.”
This mindset helped her maintain a 3.99 grade-point average at UNK – one pesky A-minus from freshman year still haunts her – and she’s part of the Honors Program, Enactus business organization and Beta Gamma Sigma, Phi Eta Sigma and Mortar Board honor societies.
Cuba, who was assistant chief of staff in the UNK Student Government for the 2016-17 academic year, said another great experience was lobbying the Legislature and making sure state lawmakers understood the value of the university system as they debated budget cuts.
On top of her UNK activities, Cuba is a creative image editor for The Buckle and she has her own photography business, Capturing Images by Kenzie, which she started in high school.
The 2016 homecoming queen finalist admits she’s still trying to figure out how she balances all these responsibilities. Learning to live with a little less sleep is part of the equation.
“It’s all worth it because of the outcome at the end,” she said.
Cuba, who turns 22 the day after commencement, knows it’s an honor to represent the Class of 2018 at the graduation ceremony. She’s both nervous and excited to talk about the university she fell in love with four years ago.
“This is your home when you come here,” said Cuba, calling her enrollment at UNK the best decision she’s ever made.
“Kenzie is one of those students who leaves everything better than she found it – no matter how small or big the task,” she said. “I feel privileged to have had the chance to work alongside her and I can’t wait to see what she does next.”
During last week’s Applauding Excellence ceremony, Cuba received the Leadership Legacy Award recognizing her impact on campus and she was named the UNK and Nebraska student employee of the year for her work with the First Year Program. The UNK Alumni Association also honored her as one of five Outstanding Senior award winners for her academic excellence, service and character.
Kristensen knows this kind of commitment is difficult to replace.
“Campus won’t be the same when she leaves,” the UNK chancellor said. “In my view, that’s a great legacy.”
Luckily, they don’t have to say their goodbyes just yet.
Cuba is enrolling in a graduate program at UNK to pursue a master’s degree in student affairs before deciding where life takes her next.
What: UNK Spring Commencement
When: 10 a.m., Friday, May 4
Where: UNK Health and Sports Center, 24th Street and 15th Avenue, Kearney
Social Media: Follow @UNKearney and #lopergrad Instagram and Twitter to see photos and posts from 2018 graduates, their friends and families
Live Broadcast: Watch Commencement live and join in the #lopergrad conversation at http://unk.edu/eventdashboard