First-Gen Loper: Sierra McKenny gains confidence, new skills by leaving her comfort zone

Sierra McKenny, right, is president of the First Gen Lopers student organization at UNK.
Sierra McKenny, right, is president of the First Gen Lopers student organization at UNK.

Grade: Junior
Hometown: O’Neill (but currently lives in Lincoln)
Major: Business administration with minors in accounting and marketing/management

What does it mean to you to be a first-generation college student?
Being a first-generation student is to be strong and dedicated, to be a pioneer in your family. It takes a lot of strength to break a generational habit of not earning a four-year degree. You have to be dedicated to earn your degree; it takes a lot of hard work, sweat and tears. There have been endless nights when I don’t know what to do – neither of my parents have any idea because they haven’t ever done what I’m doing before – and I’m frustrated and feel like giving up. If it wasn’t for my support system at UNK, I would not have made it this far.

Why is a college education important to you?
This is a great question. Since I was little, there has been an expectation from my parents to go to college. I’ve never not wanted to go to college. As I got older, I realized how much I loved to learn and how much I benefited from it. I’m not getting a degree to make more money or have a fancy office job. Those are nice benefits, but I’m here for personal growth. Going into college, my hope was to network, learn and grow, which would set me up for success the rest of my life. As I’m in my junior year now, I have networked, learned and grew so much. We will have to wait and see, but I am confident that my time at UNK will come in handy while pursuing my life goals.

Why did you choose UNK?
Honestly, it all came down to one thing when choosing a college: whether they offered a completely online experience. I knew I wanted to attend the University of Nebraska since they are highly ranked with one of the lower costs in the country. Ultimately, I chose Kearney because of the obvious dedication to their online program. Little did I know how much more value UNK would provide me.

Tell me about the support you’ve received during your time here:
I have received immeasurable support from faculty and staff at UNK and also from fellow students. I believe the support I’ve received has contributed to my heightened confidence, which I didn’t have when I began college. I fully believe in the saying, “Fake it ’til you make it,” and that’s the mindset I had going into college. However, over time, I find that I’m not faking it anymore. I’ve grown into a confident person and I believe the support I’ve received during my time at UNK has a lot to do with that.

Sierra McKenny speaks during last year's First Gen Day celebration on campus.
Sierra McKenny speaks during last year’s First Gen Day celebration on campus.

You’re president of the First Gen Lopers student organization. What’s that experience been like?
The mission of First Gen Lopers is to support first-generation students at UNK from recruitment to graduation by providing resources, guidance, connections and campuswide advocacy. I believe we’ve done a great job of holding true to our mission. We hold biweekly meetings that vary on topic and are part of the First Gen Week celebration on campus.

Helping build First Gen Lopers to what it is today has been truly life-changing for me. I was one of the people on the initial Zoom meeting led by DJ Hardwick and current adviser Aaron Estes, and soon after I became the inaugural secretary of the organization. Leading First Gen Lopers from Day 1, in my opinion, has taught me more soft skills than any class could have. I’ve strengthened my planning, communication, teamwork and leadership skills, to name a few. I was also given multiple opportunities to learn something new or build on my strengths. For instance, last year at our First Gen Day celebration, I was honored to give a short speech about each of the award winners and help present the awards. That day was a breakthrough moment for my public speaking skills. Before, I lacked confidence while I was speaking, but I believe my confidence has grown due to having never-ending support from Aaron and fellow First Gen Lopers members.

This is just one of the many instances where First Gen Lopers has truly shown its value to me. I know that if it is adding this much value to my college experience, it must be adding value for other members, as well.

What advice do you have for other first-gen students?
Leave your comfort zone, whether that is being active in a student organization, introducing yourself to the person sitting next to you in class, reaching out for help, etc. Leaving your comfort zone will help you learn and grow. I believe this is good advice for anyone. By simply dedicating myself to leaving my comfort zone and saying yes to things I’m scared to do, my college experience has been and will be looked back on as a success that contributed to my overall success in life.

What’s your career/professional goal?
I plan on finishing my bachelor’s degree, taking a year or two to gain work experience, and then completing an online MBA with a specialization in marketing. I will pursue a career in marketing and sales, and I plan on opening my own business at some point in my career. In June 2022, I was hired on to the marketing team at TELCOR Inc. in Lincoln. My current title is marketing generalist. I plan to stay with this company and work my way up the corporate ladder. TELCOR offers many great benefits, including tuition reimbursement for your MBA, so it aligns well with my career goals.